Smart Cities: Collaboration is Key to Realizing Technology’s Promise

If when you hear the term “smart city” you imagine a robotic maid and taking your flying saucer to work, think again. The “smart” cities being built today are integrating advanced technologies in ways you may never have imagined possible. They’re using wireless technology, mobile and video telecommunications, and geographic information systems to tackle our most pressing urban problems from traffic congestion to health care.

It’s technology the U.S. government should be investing in, says the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz in a recent post, if we’re going to take advantage of the promises that technology offers for livability, sustainability and most important, jobs and prosperity. (The research firm IDC estimates the smart infrastructure industry could bring in $122 billion over the next two years.)Katz paints an engaging portrait of the possibilities: “cities and metropolitan areas that use technology to manage urban congestion, maximize energy efficiency, enhance public security, allocate scarce resources based on real time evidence, even educate their citizenry through remote learning.”

And these are not just possibilities for a distant future. The technology is being built and used now – most strikingly in new cities that are being built from the ground up in developing economies. (See this fascinating piece Katz points to from Fast Company about Songdo, South Korea, a “digital city of the future” that Cisco and the South Korean government are developing.)

Katz says the biggest obstacle to using these technologies for urban planners in the U.S. is the fragmentation of our governmental bodies – from municipalities to school districts to libraries to public utilities. Katz says the U.S. has by one count “19,492 units of general purpose municipal governments, 13,051 school districts, and 37,381 special authorities.”  Most of these entities have different public data systems, use different infrastructures and very few are able to talk to one another.

Smart technology can transform pressing issues today because it is ubiquitous and can see across silos of government to create change. Smart systems can connect public transportation and education policy, for example, or combat global warming by conserving energy in our city streets and buildings.

“When buildings, power lines, gas lines, roadways, cell phones, residential systems, and so on are able to talk to one another, that information can expose patterns of waste and ways to avoid it,” Greg Lindsay writes in the piece at Fast Company. “Just as wiring corporations made them leaner and meaner, wiring cities may be one way to tease efficiency out of dumb networks like the power grid.”

Using that same logic, however, one could conceivably use the interconnections to sabotage or disrupt a city as well. While technology is benign, people are not.

And retrofitting cities is no easy task. New cities like Songdo, Katz says, will always have a leg up on established places because it’s easier to start from scratch rather than retrofitting existing systems.

Author Gord Hume‘s new book on Canadian cities agrees. “Taking Back Our Cities” addresses how municipalities based on 17th century tax structures and 19th century governance laws can prepare to compete with 21st century innovations in places like Songdo.

“How do we compete globally?” Hume asks in a book trailer.  “How do we change our education? Our governance? How do we figure out, in Canada, who does what between the various orders of government?”

Both Katz and Hume say our cities must figure this out if we are to compete with LEED-certified centers of digital innovation like Songdo. These places, and others like them in China and elsewhere are urbanizing at a feverish pace, with billions of dollars of private-sector money beckoning.

Katz calls for strategic policy leadership at the national scale to create the mandates or incentives necessary for local government bodies to work together and with business and citizens to adapt technology on a grander scale.

“In contrast to increasing calls for U.S. government to get out of the way, catalyzing an American smart cities market requires governments to get in the game. The federal and state governments should become smart investors. Federal transportation law, for example, could reward metropolitan areas that embrace congestion pricing or allocate transportation resources based on the integration of housing, transport and employment data.  States could require fragmented municipal governments to establish common platforms for shared services or challenges. All these efforts would trigger markets for the application of smart technology.”

Katz points to several model in cities where strong federal leadership in technology integration has sparked urban development. Germany’s government-mandated low-carbon framework, for example, helped Hamburg and Freiburg to become leaders in energy efficiency.

Katz also sees a role for private industry to step in where national or state government does not. IBM has been working with Dubuque, Iowa, to reduce water use and increase leak detection as part of their Smart Cities in A Box initiative. And just this month they announced new software available to municipalities based on a pilot project with the city of Portland, Ore. Their System Dynamics for Smarter Cities is designed to allow planners to model the effects of different policy choices on systems such as the economy, housing, education, public safety, transportation and health care might interact.

Portland, for example, had a goal of a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. The authorities knew that getting people drive less and walk or bike more could help reduce carbon emissions, but the model showed it could also lower obesity rates, which would also affect the health of the city.

You can read Katz’s full post at the Brooking Institution Metro Policy Program.

Photo by Worklife Siemens.

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