Casting one’s eye into a crystal ball is a risky undertaking that can leave the forecaster as visionary or fool – particularly if they are short term predictions that can easily be checked. But that hasn’t deterred the soothsayers at IBM coming up with their fourth annual “Next 5 in 5” list of innovations that will impact our lives in the next five years.

Because the world is experiencing unprecedented urbanization, with last year seeing the majority of the world’s population residing in cities for the first time in history, IBM has focused on innovations that have the potential to change how people live, work and play in cities around the globe in the coming years. The list is based on market and societal trends expected to transform cities, as well as emerging technologies from IBM’s labs around the world that have the potential to turn these predictions into reality. So what does IBM think we can expect?

Cities will have healthier immune systems

Given their population density, IBM says cities will remain hotbeds of communicable diseases. However, the emergence of a “health Internet” will give city officials, hospitals, schools and workplaces the ability to better detect, track, prepare for and prevent infections. IBM predicts this system will share anonymous medical information contained in electronic health records to provide information for public health officials to know when, where and how diseases are spreading and even which neighborhoods will be affected next. IBM is already working with organizations to standardize methods for sharing health information and analyzing infectious disease outbreaks that would enable such a system.

City buildings will sense and respond like living organisms

The trend towards “smart buildings” has already started and IBM says the trend will only gather pace with technology used to manage building systems such as heat, water, sewage, electricity, etc. Thousands of sensors inside buildings will monitor everything from motion and temperature to humidity, occupancy and light. This system will enable repairs before something breaks, emergency units to respond quickly with the necessary resources, and consumers and business owners to monitor their energy consumption and carbon emission in real-time and take action to reduce them.

Cars and buses will run on empty

This one is a pretty safe bet too. The switch from fossil fuel powered vehicles is already underway and, although there are a few potential energy sources including
hydrogen and various
biofuels vying for consideration, IBM predicts that improved battery technology will be the technology to power the next generation of eco-friendly vehicles. It says the new batteries won’t need to be recharged for days or months at a time, depending on how often the vehicles are driven, and will allow trips of 300 to 500 miles (480 – 800km) on a single charge. Also smart grids in cities will allow vehicles to be charged in public places using renewable energy, such as wind power, for charging so they no longer rely on coal-powered plants.

Smarter systems will quench cities’ thirst for water and save energy

To deal with the estimate that demand for water is expected to increase sixfold in the next 50 years cities will install smarter water systems to reduce water waste by up to 50 percent. Smart sewer systems will also be installed that not only prevent run-off pollution in rivers and lakes, but purify water to make it drinkable. Advanced water purification technologies will help cities recycle and reuse water locally, reducing energy used to transport water by up to 20 percent. Like smart electricity meters, interactive meters and sensors will be integrated into water systems to provide users with real time, accurate information about their water consumption to allow them to make better decisions about how and when they use this valuable resource.

Cities will respond to a crisis – even before receiving an emergency phone call

IBM hasn’t given a lot of details about just how such technology would be implemented - although it won’t be through the use of precogs like those used in the movie
Minority Report – simply saying that analyzing the right information at the right time will help prevent emergencies, such as crime and disasters.

IBM says it is already helping law enforcement agencies analyze information that will allow public servants to take proactive measures to head off crime. Also the New York Fire Department has selected IBM to build a state-of-the-art system for collecting and sharing data in real-time and the company is also designing smart levee systems to prevent cities from devastating floods.

IBM hasn’t really gone out on a limb with any of their predictions. As any regular reader would know, all of the innovations outlined by IBM are already emerging, which is hardly surprising given IBM’s next five years timeframe.

Five years could be an optimistic time frame, especially when you look back at the first IBM Next 5 in 5 list compiled in 2006. It predicted the rise of a 3-D Internet and real-time speech translation becoming the norm. That leaves only one year for this to take place. Although there have been advances in both areas, it couldn’t really be said that either has changed many people’s lives just yet. It's hard to think the same won't be true for this new list five years from now.