Mobility Lab: Starting the tough smart city conversations

Tue, 2016-10-18 11:18 -- SCC Staff

By Lisa Nisenson - October 6, 2016

Notes from Smart Cities Week 
Last week, the Smart Cities Council held its second conference devoted to the fast-paced world of city-scale technologies that support efficient and sustainable communities. Even in just the last year, a slew of new pilot programs and product launches have redefined some of the ongoing discussions about shared visions of how a smart city will work. Here is a quick status report and observations of the road ahead.

Top issues
1. Groundwork– The Smart Cities Council and speakers deserve a lot of credit for shaping a people-and-places-first agenda for smart cities. Speakers noted that “smart” does not always mean “technology:” walkable communities deliver multiple benefits and are the ultimate backup system for when tech fails. For the public, privacy is the top concern, and cities cannot compare government efforts to popular opt-in platforms like Waze and Facebook.

In putting people first, cities are finding success in designing smart city programs by working with the entire community. Ted Smith, Ph.D., Chief of Civic Innovation for Louisville, Kentucky, described how the city enlisted asthma patients to collect real time, geotagged data on asthma attacks. The city then reported back to participants, demonstrating how collected data helped identify and reduce asthma hot spots, in one case through strategic tree planting next to a school.

Interoperability for technology – There is a lot of tension around setting standards for emerging technologies and systems. In one sense, a single standard will create an “app store” allowing seamless, universal uploads and data remixing by cities and entrepreneurs. However, a single entrenched system might also stifle innovation. Most speakers agreed there would likely be one backbone standard with variations similar to evolving green community rating systems.

Interoperability within government – The words “turf” and “siloes” permeated practically every conversation. The first generation of technology made strides in municipal-wide information systems, but not enough. For city and county managers, the coming tsunami of data (from interconnected sensors and objects referred to as the Internet of Things), combined with expanded open data programs, will force the issue of creating a single data system across multiple city departments. This is not just a technology issue, but a cultural and managerial one, where “turf” is often a strategy for protecting budgets, roles and positions.

Driverless cars – While cars still (unfortunately) dominate discussions, multiple speakers converged on scenarios where driverless shuttles deliver new customers to existing transit stations. These mobility hubs are a new planning format for allocating space for the growing number of transportation options.

Smarter streetlights and poles – On the showroom floor, several vendors are combining several functions into new poles and kiosks. These functions include not only lighting and signage, but increasingly digital wayfinding, room for data collection devices and connectivity, energy systems, access to web portals, public information alerts, and advertising.

Topics not addressed
Driverless everything
– According to several prototypes shown, the interior of driverless cars will, in all likelihood, look nothing like current models because they don’t need to. Instead of a back and front seat, interiors can imitate office suites and even hotel rooms. If so, why should anyone pay for brick and mortar space when roadway use is so cheap? This is a city tax collector’s worst nightmare since important revenue streams are tied to land uses, not uses that take place in vehicle interiors. The bottom line: smart, shared cities cannot rely on covering funding needs from traditional revenue structures.

Who will own infrastructure? – One of the best quotes from the conference: “whoever owns the streets, owns future revenue.” While this sounds absurd for public right of way, speaker after speaker observed that smart, shared-use cities are turning streets and sidewalks into prime real estate for urban living, pick-up and drop-off, data collection and whatever else the future holds. While cities attempt to balance new revenue with public interest, private entities may demand long term agreements not only to manage risk, but also take control of future revenue opportunities.

Planning for transitions – The planning profession, by and large, is not fond of boat-rocking. Change is typically a baby-step affair. The accelerating deployment of driverless and smart city technology, however, will force the public employee’s job from “guardian of status quo” to transition manager. This requires a different skill set that, as one speaker noted, comes at a time when training budgets are declining.

If the first Smart Cities Week was about the possibilities, the second one revealed the difficult restructuring to come with financing cities, settling privacy concerns, and overhauling local governance. Those conversations need to start now.