Once upon a time there was a family that lived in homes raised on platforms in the sky. They had cars that flew and sorta drove themselves. Their sidewalks carried them to where they needed to go. Video conferencing was the norm, as were appliances which were mostly automated. And they had a robot that cleaned and dispensed sage advice.

I was always a huge fan of the Jetsons. The family dynamics I could do without—Hey, Jane, you clearly had outside interests. You totally could have pursued them, and rocked at it too!—but they were a social reflection of the times even while set in the future, so that is what it is. But their lives were a technological marvel! They could travel by tube, electronic arms dressed them (at the push of the button), and Rosie herself was astounding. If it rained, the Superintendent could move their complex to a higher altitude to enjoy the sunshine! Though it’s a little terrifying to think that Mr. Spacely could pop up on video chat at any time. Think about your boss having that sort of access. Scary, right?

The year 2062 used to seem impossibly far away. But as the setting for the space-age family’s adventures looms on the horizon, even the tech-expectant Jetsons would have to agree that our worlds are perhaps closer than we realize. The moving sidewalks and push button technology (apps, anyone?) have been realized, we’re developing cars that can drive themselves, and we're on our way to building more Rosie-like AI. Heck, we’re even testing the limits of personal flight. No joke. We’re even working to build a smarter electrical grid, one that would automatically adjust home temperatures and more accurately measure usage.

Sure, we have a ways to go just yet, but we're more than peering over the edge. We’ve taken the first big step in revolutionizing our management of data.

The September special issue of Scientific American focuses on the strengths of urban centers. Often disparaged for congestion, pollution, and perceived apathy, cities have a history of being vilified. And yet, they’re also seats of innovation. The Social Nexus explores the potential awaiting to be unleashed by harnessing data.

If there’s one thing cities have an abundance of, it’s data. Number of riders on the subway, parking tickets given in a certain neighborhood, number of street fairs, number of parking facilities, broken parking meters—if you can imagine it, chances are the City has the data available, and it’s now open for you to review, study, compare, and shape, so that you can help built a city that’s responsive to your needs.

To this end, NYC has opened its DataMine—data collected from different City agencies and organizations—to developers. And the City is using the NYC Big Apps 2.0 competition to incentivize the creation of innovative mobile apps based on that public data. The 2011 winners included apps that could possibly reduce congestion (Roadify), and prevent you from splurging on food poisoning (DontEat.At).

There’s even an app that lets you learn about the trees in your neighborhood: what they are, the environmental benefits, and their local impact. Before you laugh at the utility of Trees Near You, consider the ways in which access to this sort of data—information that people may care about in a format that they can understand—changes the relationship people have to their environment, demystifies the workings of bureaucracy, and fosters a greater sense of community.

Boston’s Catch the Bus app keeps residents informed about transit schedules, but it also adds a level of accountability, as it provides a real measure against which anyone can gauge the effectiveness of service delivery. In the face of budget cuts, as citizens clamor for greater responsiveness and accountability from government, this gives the public a powerful tool to evaluate efficiency.

New York City has installed digital signage in the subways and at bus stops, informing passengers about wait times and delays and minimizing the need for the garbled PA announcements of old. New Yorkers can sign up for text and email alerts about service disruptions and emergency alerts. City agencies are increasingly employing forms of new media to reach the masses: 311, for example, allows citizens to report issues via phone, 311 Online, and the 311 smartphone application. The service also supports Twitter, Skype, and text message at shortcode 311-692. According to New York City’s Road Map For the Digital City issued earlier this year, @311NYC had 14,012 followers on Twitter. Today that number has grown to 18,901. The citizenry is plugged in, and the more ways the City can reach them, the more we work toward building a more cohesive, intuitive society.

The Social Nexus advocates strongly for citizen participation in the creation of the “new” city:

First, by imposing a preordained design, centralized planners often fail to create a city that is tailored to the inhabitants’ needs, that reflects the culture or that creates the rich mix of activities the distinguishes great places. Centralized plans also make many assumptions about what people want, causing such plans to be brittle in the face of chance. So many “smart home” projects have failed over the past few decades precisely because designers made the wrong assumptions about how people would want to integrate technologies into their daily lives and did not build in the capacity to adapt to unforeseen situations.

Second, top-down visions ignore the enormous innovative potential of grass-roots efforts. We have all witnessed how the decentralization of design transformed the World Wide Web into a fascinating milieu for social interaction. By providing unfinished solutions rather than new raw materials for building the physical and social fabric of smarter cities, top-down designs rob themselves of any capability to invent new ideas for how to make cities better.

The question is how best to get people involved. Tech evangelist Laurel Ruma of O’Reilly Media offered some ideas in her Ignite talk during Web 2.0 NYC 2010. Ruma cited Edward Tufte's work in data visualization as a key example in breaking down data into understandable essences. How do you explain pork belly spending? As Ruma demonstrated, you give the public graphics showing pigs, barrels, and money. The point is not to offend the intelligence of interested public, but to tell a story to people who don't understand APIs—bringing as many people to the conversation as possible.

We can’t ascend to the stratosphere to escape bad weather just yet, but maybe we’re on track. We still have a few years to 2062, and it’s clear the public wants to—and expects to—participate in the creation of the future. And it would be foolish to ignore an interested public.

Photo credit: Used with the gracious permission of Janine Carney: South Street Seaport, August 2011.