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Cities get smarter

Richard Adler | Oct. 29, 2014
Cities can seem immortal, lasting for thousands of years. Imagine the possibilities when we make them smart.

And, whether it is a good or a bad thing, tech vendors' hopes of getting other cities to make big investments in building state-of-the-art municipal control centers like Rio's were dealt a setback when the economic crises of the past decade slashed city revenues and depleted the funds they might have spent on new technologies.

Thinking smaller
However, there is another, very different pathway to making cities smarter that is based on the efforts of idealistic, mostly young, civic-minded hackers who are attempting to make government more responsive and to liberate government data that could increase the transparency of public agencies. Many of these digital activists share a belief that citizens empowered by technology can do for themselves much of what they now depend on government to do -- and do it better and cheaper.

As Townsend observes, the activists envision "a smart city modeled not after a mainframe but the Web." From their perspective, the big tech vendors fail to appreciate the human dimension that makes cities special. Rather than focusing on making a city's infrastructure function more efficiently, they are more interested in using digital technology to connect a city's residents together in order to share and collaborate with each other. With the democratization of technology, mobile devices (which already outnumber the total global population) will be a key platform for this kind of collaboration.

While these grassroots initiatives are appealing, they also have their limits. For now, many apps created by volunteers remain at the level of "proofs of concept" rather than being robust and truly useful. And small, targeted apps developed to serve the residents of one community may not scale to serve broader needs.

Making progress in the middle
Given the limits of both the top-down and bottom-up approaches, what is the most promising path to making cities smarter? Townsend is encouraged by the actions of a group of progressive mayors both in the U.S. and abroad who have taken responsibility for mobilizing technology for the public good in their communities. Mayors in cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco have appointed chief digital officers or chief innovation officers and encouraged them to work with residents to increase access to government data and help develop applications that use this data.

In Chicago, for example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has championed the creation of a comprehensive technology plan that proposes a series of initiatives that go well beyond using technology to make the city run more efficiently. When the plan was released in 2013, the mayor stated that its primary goals were "job creation and improving quality of life for residents." Among the priorities identified in the plan are to use technology to improve government services and support civic innovation and to promote growth of the city's tech sector. The plan also calls for increasing the availability of broadband for all businesses and residents, which it recognizes represents the key infrastructure for economic growth.


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