American cities of all sizes have been rapidly transforming since the onset of the digital age. Innovation and technology are leading change and have prompted the use of the term “smart city” for many digital or data-driven advances. But what exactly is a smart city, and what is the path for earning that term?
During its “Transformers: Cities” event earlier this week, The Washington Post gathered thought leaders who are shaping the futures of U.S. cities. Speakers included city officials, strategists and technologists who spoke about what urban areas are doing to modernize and best serve the public, and what the future might hold. Smart Cities Dive analyzed key takeaways from the event.
1. Knowing how to analyze data is crucial
Overall, the smart cities movement is in its infancy, and municipal leaders are still trying to figure out how best to integrate technology and data into their operations.
“I think about government using data as a way to bring people together, to bridge divides that have been historically exacerbated by policy — and actually by the way that data has been collected and used to support decision-making,” said Beth Blauer, founder of GovEx at Johns Hopkins University.
“For me, a smart city is… where the rubber meets the road,” said Kate Garman, Seattle’s smart city coordinator. “It’s how we use data to change how the city operates.”
But a barrier for cities across the country is knowing exactly how to use data to make service and infrastructure improvements. “City governments have invested generations of resources into technology that is collecting data all the time, and they have absolutely no idea how to access that,” Blauer said.
Best case scenarios for changing how a city operates — both inside and outside of the local government — include first identifying areas for improvement and then using data to solve problems. Successful and cost-effective implementation centers on using gathered data to strategically deploy resources that will benefit citizens.
2. Data inclusivity is key
Striving for digital inclusivity among all residents is a major focus. “To me a smart city is one that begins work centered on the resident and ends work centered on the resident,” said Erie Meyer, Code for America National Network director. She echoes others’ observations that data and technology can leave behind huge sectors of the population who aren’t particularly tech-savvy or enabled, especially seniors and low-income residents. “You’re … fighting for the experience of the people in your city and ideally, the most vulnerable residents first.” “The onus is on … the public sector to listen to people who are desperately asking for help.”
Cities consistently face cultural issues while implementing resources, such as resistance from people who might not understand cloud computing or trust data collection. Conducting a testing phase on real people early in the process can help leaders ensure usability and reduce risk. “The tactic is to start with the users, to get in the neighborhoods, to sit down, to bring those colleagues along and don’t make it a scary tech thing,” Meyer said. “The onus is on … the public sector to listen to people who are desperately asking for help.”
3. P3s can fill funding gaps
Securing adequate funding for municipal projects is a perennial issue, but it’s even more apparent when taking on expensive technology projects. It can be a major holdback to becoming a smart city.
Less overall investment has been made in local governments since the Great Recession, Blauer said, both in terms of funding and training. “Any kind of support that we were giving the public sector completely disappeared … and we under-invested in the capacity of the public sector … as the private sector invested in their workforce,” she said. That’s left many municipalities under-prepared to be a network of data-forward, analytical thinkers.
More city leaders are realizing the benefits of filling information and funding gaps by investing in public-private partnerships. “Partnerships are key,” Garman said. “A huge problem in cities is bandwidth for city staff.”
4. P3s can also elevate city transit
Cities have spent decades investing in their public transportation infrastructures in various ways, but U.S. transit ridership is sagging across several categories, most notably bus ridership. Some blame the rise of ride-share services, but much of it comes down to the theme of not evolving with an increasingly convenience-driven society.
The past few years have brought innovations in public transportation, with a focus on convenience and first mile/last mile services. More public transit agencies also are forging alliances with other transportation providers, such as the partnership between Phoenix and Lyft. “Transportation … has to be a public-private partnership,” said Raj Kapoor, chief strategy officer for Lyft. “From a consumer’s perspective, the lines start to blur.”
Many cities’ transit authorities operate separately from the local government, and they also should foster strong partnerships, said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal and director of strategy at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates. “If cities and transit agencies operate together not only can they improve transit, but they can be much better partners for companies … as they’re creating new technologies to do the things that transit is not good at,” he said.
Changing transportation structures have many asking what the role is for a public transit agency, said Jessica Robinson, director of city solutions at Ford Smart Mobility. “People are very excited about the opportunity to have different kinds of vehicles, different pricing structures, working with a variety of solutions to actually deliver on the core promise of public transit, which is to help people move around,” she said. It’s a matter of finding “the right option for the right trip.” An option currently receiving a lot of attention from cities like Los Angeles is the growth of microtransit, which involves riders sharing on-demand trips in vehicles that are bigger than a car but smaller than a bus, such as vans. “[Microtransit] fills in a gap between the benefits of cars owned … and public transit,” Robinson said. “It’s a flexible vehicle … but it’s shared.”
Despite all the changes, “Transit is not going away,” Kapoor said. “What it’s going to be is a combination, even in the world of autonomous vehicles at full tilt.”
5. AVs will bring ‘profound’ changes
Although cities are starting to test autonomous vehicles in both simulations and a few real-life situations, transportation experts don’t anticipate a tsunami of AVs on the roads anytime soon. “This is going to be a very gradual change,” Kapoor said. “Most autonomous vehicles are slowly learning the world around them. Think about the number of potential scenarios that a car has to encounter.”
After AVs become more prevalent, citizens will have to get comfortable interacting with them. “There’s a lot of questions that consumers have and they have a lot of questions around trust,” said Kapoor. “We think for the next decade or more it’s going to be a combination of AV drivers and human drivers, even in ride-sharing, and that will get people comfortable.”
“In the short run, I’m not sure we’re going to see a lot of change,” Tumlin said. “In the long run, though, the changes are going to be profound.” He said some of the likely changes will include advertising inside of autonomous vehicles once passengers no longer have to pay attention to the road and advertisers have a captive audience.
“It really goes to the deeper question of, what do we want autonomous vehicles to do for us in our cities?” Robinson said. “I think there’s a real potential to improve access.”
Transitioning to a society with daily human-AV interactions will take patience and teamwork. “We’re all learning how to work through these things together in real time,” Robinson said.
From The New York Times
TORONTO — For a city striving to become a major technology center, it was a prize catch: A Google corporate sibling would spend the coming year planning a futuristic metropolis in a derelict part of Toronto’s waterfront.
When announcing this fall that the company, Sidewalk Labs, would create a city of tomorrow, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada promised the project would create “technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive” communities. Even the nasty weather off Lake Ontario would be tamed, the developer pledged.
But tempering the excitement of some Toronto residents are concerns that are perhaps inevitable when it comes to a company renowned for collecting and analyzing data.
Quayside, as the project is known, will be laden with sensors and cameras tracking everyone who lives, works or merely passes through the area. In what Sidewalk calls a marriage of technology and urbanism, the resulting mass of data will be used to further shape and refine the new city. Lifting a term from its online sibling, the company calls the Toronto project “a platform.”
But extending the surveillance powers of one of the world’s largest technology companies from the virtual world to the real one raises privacy concerns for many residents. Others caution that, when it comes to cities, data-driven decision-making can be misguided and undemocratic.
Google is not renowned for collecting and analyzing data, it’s infamous for collecting and analyzing data about it’s users. “There’s an enormous amount of interest and also quite a bit of concern,” said Shauna Brail, the director of the University of Toronto’s urban studies program. “It will be a political issue no matter what.”
Quayside is the most significant new project for Sidewalk Labs, an urban technologies company that is part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Set up in 2015, it is headed by Daniel L. Doctoroff, a former New York City deputy mayor and former chief executive of Bloomberg.
Mr. Doctoroff, who peppers conversations about Quayside with references to “consultation” and “transparency,” came to Toronto fully expecting concerns and criticism.
“If you’re going convince people about new ideas, they have to be a part of it,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “The whole notion of this place as a platform is apparently more democratic than, we think, traditional place-making has actually been.”
During its first two years in operation, Sidewalk looked at 52 places in the United States and several others around the world for a site to begin building cities of the future, Mr. Doctoroff said. But in Toronto, the company’s interests found a match. An agency that included the federal government, the city and the province of Ontario was looking for a developer for about 800 acres of federally owned waterfront just east of downtown.
It was last developed during the 1950s, when officials hoped that the St. Lawrence Seaway would allow trade with Europe to become an integral part of Toronto’s economy.
Little of that vision came to fruition. The area is now home to overflow parking for car dealerships, an abandoned grain elevator and docks lined with small, slightly shabby cruise boats where high school prom parties are held. No one calls it home.
The current agreement between Sidewalk and the three government entities covers only 12 acres, for an initial experiment.
Sidewalk has said it will spend $50 million to hold public consultations and develop a plan. But the company has already released a series of documentslaying out its plan in some detail. The company’s overall investment has not been determined.
Pretty much everything in Quayside will be reimagined. Buildings will be prefabricated for the most part, and will be highly energy-efficient; breaking with traditional zoning rules, they will not have fixed uses. A Sidewalk drawing shows a low-rise structure in which office workers and apartment dwellers share space with what appears to be a large distillery. Packages will be delivered by robot; other robots will pick up the garbage.
Private cars will be restricted in favor of self-driving cars (another area of interest for Alphabet), walking, cycling and mass transit. The wires and pipes that are the connective tissue of every city will sit inside tunnels fitted with access panels that Sidewalk claims will eliminate the need to dig up streets. Neighborhood mini-grids that do not rely on fossil fuels will supply electricity.
When it rains, or the hot summer sun beats down, massive awnings will unfold; heated paths will melt the snow to make way for cyclists in winter.
But its data-collection capability may be the greatest distinction, and source of opposition, for the Sidewalk plan.
Sensors inside buildings will measure such things as noise, while an array of cameras and outdoor sensors will track everything from air pollution to the movement of people and vehicles through intersections.
Nothing is too prosaic to analyze: Toilets and sinks will report their water use; the garbage robots will report on trash collection. Residents and workers in the area will rely on Sidewalk-developed software to gain access to public services; the data gathered from everything will influence long-term planning and development.
To Mr. Doctoroff, that marriage of data and urbanism holds the key to the project’s success.
“We looked at literally about 150 different attempts to create urban innovation districts, cities of the future, smart cites.” he said. All of them, in Sidewalk’s view, failed because they could not bridge the gulf between technology and traditional urban planning.
Not long after the project was announced in October, challenges began appearing online, including in a widely discussed list of questions on Torontoist, a local urban affairs website.
While surveillance cameras and other sensors are fixtures in many cities, Pamela Robinson, an associate professor at the school of urban planning at Ryerson University in Toronto, said Quayside’s data would differ in its extent and its collection method — by a private company rather than by government agencies. Plans for who will own that data and who will be able to access it have not been announced.
“We’ve never seen anything like this at this scale before,” Ms. Robinson said.
Ms. Robinson expressed concern that Sidewalk’s vast data might not reflect the city as a whole. Quayside’s current plans promise housing for people of all income levels. But the only company so far committed to moving there is Google Canada, suggesting an influx of young, affluent workers.
The data, Ms. Robinson warned, might be used to limit or discourage the otherwise legal use of public spaces by homeless people, teenagers or other groups.
“We don’t want to create what’s effectively a gated community,” she said.
Like many other skeptics, Ms. Robinson noted that people online can avoid the all-seeing eye of technology companies by, for example, opting not to use social media sites. No obvious way to opt out of Quayside’s surveillance systems exists, except by staying out of the area.
Beyond that, Renee Sieber, a professor of geography and environment at McGill University in Montreal, rejected Sidewalk’s belief that data analysis provided a superior way to plan cities.
“Democracy and the rights of citizens is inherently political; it’s not something you should shy away from,” said Ms. Sieber, who studies the use of data by citizen groups. “Governments need to be all about fairness.” If city government were concerned only with efficiency, she said, “you don’t send buses where it’s rural or poor.”
Sidewalk has held the first of what will be several public meetings and has acknowledged various criticisms and concerns. Politics, not technology, may prove to be its biggest challenge to building its version of tomorrow.
“We believe there’s enormous potential but we also are very sensitive to the fact that there’s going to have to be an intense community conversation,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “We’re prepared to commit the money to do the planning over the course of the next year and leave it to the people of Toronto as to whether or not they are excited by the vision.”