Promoting innovation in our cities – risks and all

Thu, 2016-09-29 07:48 -- Liz Enbysk

Innovation involves risks – but innovation is also improving our communities. That message came through loud and clear at a Connected Cities event hosted by the Washington Post and Qualcomm on Wednesday. Bottom line, to progress we need to accept that risk.


Innovation can humanize technology to make cities more livable, workable and sustainable, said Philip Bane, Managing Director of the Smart Cities Council. “We want to extend the benefits of technology to human beings, the disadvantaged,” Bane said, and to create more jobs and better-paying jobs.

Bane introduced the Council’s just-published policy brief – Smart Infrastructure Unlocks Equity and Prosperity in Our Cities and Towns during the event.  The brief outlines specific examples of how cities in the U.S. and abroad are seeing social, financial and environmental benefits from their smart infrastructure investments and recommends actions that elected officials and policymakers can take to help other cities, counties and towns do the same.

Steve Crout, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Qualcomm, mentioned how important connectivity is in helping cities meet today’s many challenges. He called mobile technology the largest technology platform in human history and suggested it plays an integral role in helping citizens improve their daily lives and making their daily lives more efficient.

Learn from successes and failures
“By definition,” Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (D-Washington) said, “innovation involves successes and failures.” Co-Chair of the Congressional Internet of Things Caucus, Delbene said the key is to support innovation and at the same time understand there will be risks and to learn from both the successes and failures – as there will inevitably be both.   

Dan Correa, Senior Advisor for Innovation Policy with the White House Office of Science and Technology said cities are increasingly becoming centers of innovation. He talked about Chicago’s Array of Things project that has sensors distributed around the city to collect information about ambient conditions. “It’s essentially a fitness tracker for the city,” he said.

Data collected from the project will be open—and open to innovation. Someone might use data on air pollution levels, for instance, to create a smartphone app that alerts asthma sufferers in real time air conditions near them.

Not all cities, however, have the money to experiment with technology, Rep. DelBene said. She advocated helping cities run pilots, which can be effective when the criteria is clear and metrics are used to determine success and whether a larger scale effort is warranted.

Correa mentioned a data-driven project in a three-county area around Seattle that used predictive analytics to determine what is actually working to reduce long-term homelessness. Once they determined the most effective approach, they are able to help more people with tailored, targeted interventions.

Innovating urban mobility
How citizens will respond to innovation can also pose a risk. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told the audience at the Post event that he knew that when the city agreed to be Uber’s testbed for autonomous vehicles.

In people’s minds, he said, robot cars are so unsafe and so untested; they worry there will be accidents and people will be killed. “People are scared; there is an anxiety,” he said.

Peduto’s view is that with sensors providing information and warnings along the route, streets will be safer for pedestrians, cyclists and those inside the autonomous cars. But yes, there is a risk. There will be accidents in them just like there are in cars that people drive.

His first ride in one of the autonomous Uber vehicles? “It was overwhelmingly uneventful.” He said couldn’t tell the difference between the car driving or a driver driving.

Car sharing, electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles are the future of urban mobility, the mayor added. And the decision to bring this innovative project to Pittsburgh has already brought 600 jobs and the possibility of that increasing to 1,000 by year end.