Smart Cities


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Part of a small series of articles I wrote for a client, posted here early 2015 but back-dated to the original dates.

Today, I gave a short talk on Smart Cities on a Montreal radio show to which I contribute regularly. Since it was a topic in the last mayoral election in Montreal, I decided to reread some material on the subject and provide a sort of primer to listeners. Here’s a variation on what I said.

The term Smart City is often understood as the vision for a city from corporations of the likes of IBM, Cisco and Siemens. Actually it simply means a more neutral “smartening” of the city. Alex Marshall phrases it like this:

I define it as the marrying of the city, in both its urban and suburban forms, to the telecommunications revolution signified by the silicon chip, the Internet, the fiber-optic line, and the wireless network.

Smart Infrastructure

The first and most common way of thinking about smart cities is the one above, a products and services angle looking almost exclusively at the city as infrastructure. These corporations discuss installing sensors and systems to automate, monitor, manage and optimize resources. Water, electricity, traffic, public lighting and other resources could all be made more efficient through the use of their hardware and software—or so these corporations tell us.

Of course this vision—as nice and well-intentioned as it might often be—must always involve the purchase of products and services, hopefully (in the provider’s mind) for many years. Some of the issues one can quickly spot with such a view are:

  • The danger of locking into the provider solution
  • Data ownership and management
  • Citizen representation on the selection and purchase of data
  • Data openness and availability

Many of these issues can also be grouped under privacy questions and fears, as well as bring forth questions about surveillance, especially in a “post-Snowden” world where we are waking up to the potential for abuse.

Anyone who upgrades their laptop or smartphone might also wonder what happens to upgrades when they are installing technological components within infrastructure. On a multi-year project, are sensors and processors outdated before the project is even complete? How is that taken into account? Are there workarounds? Upgrade plans?

Broadband

The infrastructure view isn’t only pushed by corporations. Some cities have also taken it upon themselves to invest in connecting their citizens. Towns like Burlington, Vermont, have laid down fiber optic cables to give their whole population high quality Internet access. Various similar projects offer telephone, cable and smart grid services through a city or town’s own infrastructure. Incredibly, as Marshall points out in the piece mentioned earlier, some municipalities are being sued by large telecom companies who are trying to stop such projects to keep their own bottom line protected.

Open data

Many of the potential issues listed above can be taken care of, or at least mitigated, if the data collected and produced by such installations is made open. Making that data available and legible allows citizens (or simply, client cities) to audit, reuse and repurpose it, potentially reducing lock in, helping with checks and balances and encouraging innovation outside of what the primary technology provider can offer.

Smart Citizens

The other viewpoint of a Smart City is to start from the citizens. As Dan Hill puts it:

We don’t make cities in order to make buildings and infrastructure. We make cities in order to come together, to create wealth, culture, more people.

It makes sense then to start there. In purely practical terms, there’s also the fact that the most widespread “layer” of technology around a city is its massive number of smartphones (to a lesser degree in some countries, but this is rising quickly). As powerful as computers from a few years ago and packed with sensors, phones are already an important technological presence to take into account and use.

In his article, Hill also discusses his thinking around “the piazza + social media” at length, where he argues that the use of public squares to meet, supplemented by social media connections have enabled or accelerated many social movements in recent years, from Occupy to Tahrir to Italy’s Movimento 5 Stelle. While those are mostly political and sometimes adversarial movements, they are examples of how these technological layers (smartphones and social media) are changing the way citizens interact with the city and society at large.

An example

An example I offered to contrast the two views is that of public transportation. In Montreal, as in many cities, we have a variety of modes of transportation. To name three, we have:

  • Bixi, the bike sharing service
  • Auto-Mobile, a car sharing service which allows you to pick up a car with your bus pass (with RFID), travel within the borough, and drop it off where you are going instead of return it to fixed pickup points
  • Taxis

Under a top-down scheme, the technology provider would likely offer to set up a new system or upgrade existing ones where the Bixi bicycle, the Auto-Mobile car and the taxi would get a GPS and be monitored and made available to a central service. This would very possibly with a yearly service charge.

Under the bottom-up citizen model, a city leading in a Smart City or citizen view would ask (and perhaps incentivize) the bike sharing, car sharing and taxi companies to offer localization—and perhaps booking—capabilities, open data or APIs and make them widely available. The city could offer its own version of a unified service, but citizen groups as well as small and large companies could offer their own versions, including some tailored to narrower markets.

Conclusion

Although I’m looking at the two views from opposing “directions”, top-down and bottom-up, they are not truly in opposition. They coexist. A municipality isn’t solely bottom-up because that wouldn’t produce large infrastructure projects. It isn’t all top-down either because a city that went fully top-down, from city hall’s perspective, would still see citizen initiatives emerge. It is however, very important that attention is paid to how decision-making, ownership and openness are handled, and who ends up with “the keys.”

Today, one stop shop solutions from technology providers are present mostly in sales pitches—most cities are just dipping a toe (if that) in the waters of “smartness.” The smartphone and social media layers, however, as I said, are already quite present. It’s a good time for groups of citizens—and for companies open to collaboration and smaller scale solutions—to join conversations around Smart Cities, to broaden the offering and the discussion, to find solutions that can both help produce more efficient infrastructure and create more liveable cities for all.

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