Why this terrible report on smart cities is still good news for America

Wed, 2016-03-02 06:00 -- Jesse Berst

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) just released a report to the President on "Technology and the Future of Cities."  PCAST is an advisory group of leading scientists and engineers. It makes recommendations on issues where science and technology play a role.

In their introductory letter to the President, the co-chairs brag that their report "goes beyond the ideas captured by the label 'Smart Cities.'" In fact, it's a rambling, sloppy embarrassment that fails to capture even the basics of a smart city, much less go beyond. Much of it reads like a high school report cobbled together from Wikipedia the night before it was due.

The good news
Despite its mortifying lack of rigor and care, this report is still good news for the country. It firmly supports smart cities as "a new, multi-trillion-dollar business opportunity." It recommends inter-agency cooperation, always a good idea at the federal level. And it asks for the federal government to make it easier for cities to finance "Urban Development Districts."

Thus, it reinforces the message started by the White House last fall with its national smart cities initiative. It says to cities that this topic matters, that this is the path to a better future. And it says to the federal government that it needs to provide organized, coordinated support. If you take the time to skim the report, you'll undoubtedly find some phrases to quote in support of your smart city ambitions.

The bad news
But as you read, please focus on the conclusions, not on the shoddy, inaccurate and incomplete findings. Please know that a smart city is far more than the confused, inchoate ideas you'll find in this report.

For instance, here are just a few of the key smart city topics that get short shrift. In some cases, just a few off-hand references. In other cases, no mention at all: Citizen services, policing and public safety, waste management, smart street lighting, smart traffic, smart parking. Here are a few of the crucial technology issues that receive only passing mention (or none at all): Cybersecurity, privacy, geo-spatial, interoperability, semantic web. And don't even get me started on their misunderstanding of international standards.

And a warning
Another caution: please be careful about adopting the district-scale approach this report favors. Yes, it's often advisable to begin with one or two neighborhoods. But before you start small, you must first think big. You must design your initial neighborhood pilots so their systems can eventually be expanded and shared with the rest of the city. If you adopt the gradual, one-at-a-time, every-neighborhood-for-itself approach implied by this report, it will take decades to complete. Even worse, each neighborhood will be its own island of incompatible technologies and hard-to-share data.

Let's not be too hard on the authors of this report. First, they are volunteers. Second, very few are from the private sector and even fewer from the disciplines that intersect directly with smart cities. They are prominent, well-educated and highly successful to a person. So let's assume that they are simply ignorant about smart cities and too busy in their day jobs to do a careful job.

At the end of the day, they DID pick smart cities as a topic important enough to flag the President's attention. And even though most of their suggestions range from naive to insular to redundant, they DID make a few useful recommendations. And that's what makes this bad thing a good thing for American cities.  — Jesse Berst


U.S. cities: You’re in danger of falling behind the rest of the world. But you could soon get some help from the highest levels of government. You just have to be ready to take it.

The technology leaders who are part of The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) are urging quick action. In their report, Technology and the Future of Cities, they write that there are more opportunities than ever to for cities to use technology to become smarter. But the stakes are also higher than ever for failing to act.

A race cities can’t afford to lose
“Transforming cities around the world in this way is already a race,” they write, “one that the United States cannot afford to lose.” Those who lose will miss out on high-paying jobs, lucrative businesses and other opportunities.

U.S. cities may already be falling behind. The Asian Development Bank is allocating $18 billion in grants to help transform cities to cope with rapidly swelling populations. The UK, Germany, China, India, Brazil and Singapore have also launched national programs to transform cities.

The PCAST urges President Obama to take immediate action to help American cities, largely by transforming federal agencies using some of the same principles that make a smart city “smart.”

Here are three steps you can take — and how the federal government plans to help.

1. Work well with others
Smart cities work as a cohesive whole — each department working together toward a common good. The report says that federal agencies that work with cities should operate that same way.

In particular, it calls for the Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Energy secretaries to work together to form an interagency initiative that pioneers new smart city models — and helps cities adopt them.

You’ll likely see more opportunities like the Transportation Department’s Smart Cities Challenge, which provided funding for cities that had solid ideas for fixing their transportation problems. Be ready when those opportunities arise.

The report also calls for the National Science and Technology Council to form a new subcommittee that coordinates the findings of federally-funded research and development projects. Pay attention to those findings and partner with universities and other research organizations in your area.

2. Embrace technological innovation
It’s technology that makes the transformation possible; embrace it everywhere you can. The report urges the Department of Housing and Urban Development to leverage technology to better serve communities. That’s both to improve service, but also to serve as a role model for cities.

Report authors recommend the department appoint a Chief Innovation Officer to guide its transformation. If you haven’t already done so, give serious thought to who is orchestrating that transformation in your city.

3. If you can’t start big, start small
Obviously, when it comes to adopting smart cities practices, more is better. But if you aren’t ready for a citywide transformation, start with areas that need the most help. If you can’t do everything, you can still do something.

Support from the federal government could come either from incentives that encourage private investment or through loans that result in Urban Development Districts, particularly in low-income or otherwise disadvantaged areas.

But even these smaller-scale projects must be driven by a citywide vision. Otherwise, you’ll end up with disjointed, less connected neighborhoods.

Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Learn about the benefits you receive when you join the Council for free. Follow @Jesse_Berst and connect on LinkedIn.