Cecilia Tham: «Autonomous vehicles and AI will help us to optimize urban metabolism»
By | 2023
Cecilia Tham is a businesswoman and entrepreneur with a background in architecture and biology. If we talk, write or research about her, future (or futures) seems to be the key word. As she mentions on her LinkedIn profile, her 11-year-old daughter is not hesitant when asked about Cecilia’s profession: «Yes, mommy of course, you work for the future». Indeed, among many other things, Cecilia Tham is today CEO of Futurity Systems, a business that she co-founded in Barcelona to help companies and organizations to shape the future through scientific evidence and technological innovation. Not surprisingly, Forbes named her one of Spain’s Top 40 individuals with the greatest ability to anticipate the future and even influence it through solutions that can be implemented in the industry.
At CitiesToBe we had the opportunity to intersect Cecilia’s futuristic vision and expertise with the perspectives facing the urban world. And here is the result both in video (above) and text (below).
— How would you define a city?
I think there are many different ways to define a city, but as we understand it, it is an area where a lot of different people can come together and unite, where they live, where they work, where they meet each other. It is a place that needs a level of a critical mass in order to certain functionalities to perform.
— What are the main challenges cities face today?
I think that one of the main challenges that cities are confronting today is that because of their high number of citizens and because they are so dense, more often than not they are not very efficient. There is a lot of waste in cities, there is very low level of sustainability, there is a lot of inefficiencies, especially around how different elements are arriving to them — such as goods, energy use. One of my interests is to identify how we can create these optimizations in cities — at all levels: in terms of energy, in terms of goods and products, even in terms of knowledge.
There is a concept called ‘urban metabolism’, which uses this analogy of our body, the metabolic rate of our body — which means having an equilibrium of the influx and outflux of what comes in and outside of your body; nutrients, calories, vitamins, and the energy that is expended. If you take that concept on and apply it on the city level, more often than not, we are not optimized. I find it really interesting to apply this understanding and notion with a biological understanding and bring this forth in trying to understand cities as a living organism.
— How will technological disruption help us to optimize the future of cities?
Let’s start talking about on the local level, and let’s continue with this analogy of the urban metabolism. When you are talking about futures, you have to think far ahead, 20 years, 25 years from now. And let’s take one of the technologies that I think is very promising: autonomous vehicles plus AI and quantum, of course. The reason these different layers of technologies are going to be very disruptive in cities is because when you think about the applications of autonomous vehicles — and not just the delivery of people, but also the delivery of services and the delivery of goods — and then you add a layer of AI to them, we could essentially optimize all the influx and outflux of what comes into the city, what comes into the neighborhoods, what comes into a household. And you can optimize that — not only what we are eating into our body and coming back into this analogy, but also the expenditure. And I think that’s super interesting.
— Can you give us a practical example?
Let me give you an example of autonomous vehicles being mainstream in this 25-year time frame, with these autonomous vehicles being able to deliver goods and services. And so let’s imagine that in this world where I am expecting to arrive home at 7 PM, my Google calendar, my Amazon delivery, my take-out of Deliveroo are synchronized perfectly, knowing that by 7 PM I will be at home and I like to eat broccoli and feta cheese together with my daughter — perfectly two portions for two people and no more at this certain hour. And then they would deliver it at my doorstep, warm without me needing to heat it ever. And then when I’m done, there will be another delivery vehicle that would come and pick up whatever that is trashed, and it will recycle it perfectly into the bins that it needs to go into. Or if I have left over food, maybe it will go back into circulation for people who are in need of it.
You can think of this in many different ways. You can even think of how autonomous vehicles could probably detect my Fitbit that I have had a fall, and that an ambulance will automatically come to my house and check on me whenever it detects it. I think that this level of optimizations with AI alongside autonomous vehicles can really disrupt how we calculate our ability to have this equilibrium on the urban metabolism level.
— Let’s imagine that we are in 2033. How do you envision the future of cities in the next 10 years?
Within a 10 year runway, one of the things that I’m seeing that is rapidly changing is the Web3 metaverse virtual world. There is a lot of talk about virtual twins or digital twins, virtual environments, immersive environments, even digital twin cities as digital twins — and how those could be experienced immersively. And I think that it is really not to think of it separately, as if there was a virtual world and then a physical world. The interesting part is when you have the overlap between these two — what is called ‘the phygital experience’. Imagine, in this 10 year runway, when we all will have augmented reality glasses and we can all go to a supermarket and see which product is best for us, how we can optimize our purchases, when we can already see a light and say «Oh, there’s a parking spot for us», and all the way over there, we will see a green, smart light. All of these augmented layers, these virtual digital layers could be tremendously optimizing our way to operate. I think that is super interesting.
That Metaverse Web 3 runway is going much faster than anyone had anticipated, so I think that in 10 years, we will see a lot of development in that area.
— Can you highlight a city that is being disruptive in the application of technology to improve itself?
I think that Barcelona is very attractive in many ways because, first of all, it is very contained. You have the mountains, you have the sea, there’s the rivers — there is no way to expand. The density is prescribed in the city, and that is one constraint that Barcelona has. As a result, Barcelona has to be innovative, it has to be creative in its solutions in terms of finding the applications of the smart city. And I think Barcelona has proven over and over again that some solutions are not just in theory and have been implemented — for example, the smart trash system, the signage that it has used for indicating traffic.
The problem with the smart city discourse is that it remains in a theoretical potential until you implement it, you test it. Even if it failed, it is still a learning process. And I think Barcelona is a really interesting example of how these things are being tested. Barcelona is a poll — because it has been historically an event city, meaning that these events serve as a testing pod for these smart solutions to be tested outside of its local community. And I think these combinations create a really interesting learning hub for Barcelona and also to share out to the world.
—Just a quick question to finish. Thinking about shaping the future without any limitations, what would you like cities to be?
I would like cities to be a living organism.
Interview, text and edition by Sergio García i Rodríguez,
Head of Communication at Anteverti & CitiesToBe Executive Editor, and Tatiane Martins, consultant at Anteverti.
Video by Eloy Calvo🗣️ «The #SmartCity discourse remains in a theoretical potential until you implement it. And #Barcelona is an interesting example of how the Smart City is being both tested and implemented.» #CitiesToBe interviews @CeciliaMTham | by @Anteverti Clic para tuitear
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About the authors
Cecilia Tham works in the intersection between technology, impact, design and business opportunity with a focused on future driven innovation. As a Co-founder and CEO of Futurity Systems, she bridges these areas to help organizations to build better futures. Previously, Cecilia founded various companies: Makers of Barcelona, FabCafe Barcelona, Allwomen.tech. These initiatives — a co-working, a maker cafe and AI training school for women by women, consulting respectively — taught her how to develop an idea to launch and to create sustainable businesses.
Cecilia got her Architecture Degree at Harvard University and she did her Undergrad Degree in Biology and Fine Arts at Emory University. She enjoys being a speaker, and has given talks at TEDx, European Commission, MWC and 4YFN. She was an adjunct professor at Parsons New School Strategic Design and Management and professor of Social Innovation Change at Toulouse Business School, and was also a product strategy expert at Google Developers Group and a certified Google Sprint Master. Additionally, Cecilia has been an advisor at SXSW, City of Barcelona and UN WFP, and has been listed as ‘Forbes Top 40 futurists’ and ‘100 Women of the Future’.