Smarter Cities why don’t we build them?

How can smarter technology enable more efficient communities?
What are the challenges and opportunities?
How do we employ technology to manage and govern our environment?

Looking at Smart Cities from an elevated view, we may conclude that to make any progress in our daily lives we need Federal and Local Government, Businesses and Citizens to all come together in this epic culture shift.

But its not about Cities at all.
Its about smart people.

To make a ‘dumb’ city smarter, most experts agree that it boils down to these three factors:

Resilience – Ability to prevent disasters and accidents aided by pervasive technology.

Competitiveness – Managing the city infrastructure in effort to provide efficient environment for business growth.

Social Mobility – Provide citizens a platform aided by technology to enable efficient public transportation, citizen engagement, community organization and accessibility services.

No doubt that there is a massive infrastructure component to enabling a smart city, but even bigger asset is the social and experience capital generated by the citizens as they use the new city infrastructure to achieve their daily objectives. We cannot expect a smart city to come to life as part of an gated project. Smart city can only be established as an effort -a way of life- for citizen and its government and should evolve with the citizens it is built to support, spanning many elected officials terms in the office.

What can existing technology do to get us off the ground fast?

For starters, we should elect officials who are more ‘agile’ in their approach, and technology friendly. When an elected official says “I don’t even know how to use email on my phone’, its not something to laugh at, its an alarm. We must elect officials that understand the need to improve our quality of life, and what connected technologies can do about it.

Many companies are investing in development of Smart Cities technology infrastructure in hopes to attract city officials to get them to start the ball rolling. IBM, Cisco, AT&T, General Electric, Ericsson, to name a few big ones. This is an unprecedented momentum pioneered by big corporations. Usually we see small startups creating digital technology trends before big companies see the light.

For the most part the technology to enable smart cities already exists. The Internet of Things movement has produced an abundance of small and affordable low power connected sensors capable of transmitting event data as it happens. Platforms already exist that can consume and use the transmitted event data intelligently, act upon it by triggering an appropriate resolution flow, all by providing an rich visualization element to those who monitor the city’s ecosystem.

The Rio Operations Center, inaugurated in December 2010, integrates the data and monitoring functions of approximately 30 municipal and state agencies and corresponding utilities under one roof.

The Rio Operations Center, inaugurated in December 2010, integrates the data and monitoring functions of approximately 30 municipal and state agencies and corresponding utilities under one roof.

The challenges and the opportunities

Nevertheless, some cities already signed partnerships with the technology providers to get started, but the big question is still; Who is responsible for the city management platform and who is responsible for individual application on the platform? This is more a legislative and policies issue that needs to be resolved before any significant progress can be made.

Beyond the politics, all its left are opportunities.

Utility loss prevention
Smart, real-time data can save city millions of dollars, and prevent widespread panic. Public Works sensors in water and gas pipes can alert the city of a potential leak immediately, re-route traffic and alert citizens in the area. Smoke or carbon detectors can detect fire, alert and route first responders before any one individual notices the problem.

Billing and charging
City can have its own service in place for capturing payments that is tied to citizen profiles, to avoid stress of waiting in lines to pay for taxes and fees, or letting 3rd party billers charge citizens ‘convenience fees’. Imagine if you never had to pay for a parking ticket again?

Integrated departments
A common Smart City Management Platform can offer shared resources across department and share files digitally to avoid delays or loos of data.

Smarter and safer streets
A command or monitoring center as a cross-functional cross-department facility can monitor traffic for accidents, prevent crime and  manage city parking without the need of a 3rd party management companies. All money generated from utilization of city properties can be paid for via a mobile device and go directly into the pocked of the city, rather than a 3rd party management company.

Amber alert recovery time
As cameras continuously analyze the traffic, finding the location of a specific vehicle in a busy city is matter of seconds.

Improved public transportation
Knowing where trains and busses are in the moment can enable greater efficiency navigating around the city and events.

City can offer anonymized APIs to app developers
A city could as well become ‘an app store’ helping the micro-economy grow by providing city’s data to those who wish to enable more focused services that tap into the abundant city’s data. Those who build apps today are faced with a lot of limitations as the local environment data is not readily available or it is proprietary.

Employing technology to manage and govern our environment

Yes, the technology can be put in place to manage water pressure, or trash collections, but how do citizens really benefit from this?
At what point do we start seeing citizen’s lives becoming more frictionless, as they go about their daily lives?
When does the technology enabled by the real-time data analysis start predicting behavioral patterns, directing traffic based on trigger events by adjacent applications?
Is smart city within our reach?
Will the city government quickly learn to be innovative?

There are too many questions I cant answer but as with any big change, a social revolution (a behavior change) is needed to spark the creativity in those who stand in the way. Citizen engagement via social media allows the government to listen rather than talk, and the social momentum towards micro-service based infrastructure both in physical and the technology work is in indicator that something new is coming.

One of my mentors says: It is hard to imagine new things when exposed to a very narrow window into technology.

We just need to elect or keep electing those who we can trust – those willing to listen… Or at least don’t stand in the way and let the technologists innovate.

At the end of the day, the social and intellectual capital a smart city can offer its citizens and visitors, combined with analytical capabilities of platforms and micro-services can only improve our daily lives, make us safer, prevent waste and allocate the savings to building even better city infrastructure.

Its a Win-win-win scenario…

Sidenote: OK, vertical farming or gardening maybe a little far fetched of an idea for now, but the notion that the parks and landscapes do not only need to exist in a horizontal plane and compete with the city infrastructure for space, is capturing more and more imagination from architects who are proposing some bold new concepts to’smart living’.  

A great example of this change are the gardens along the abandoned train tracks like New York Highline or Atlanta Beltline

New York Highline

New York Highline

Atlanta Beltline

Atlanta Beltline