Making all cities ‘smart cities’

Mass. can lead the way in shaping the future

WHAT DOES THE future hold for cities? Proponents of “smart cities” have made many ambitious promises and proclamations. Fleets of autonomous vehicles will replace traditional forms of public and private transportation. Sensor systems will report conditions on every street corner in real time. Predictive algorithms will anticipate events and community needs before they happen. Indeed, many of the prophecies of science fiction writers appear to be within grasp.

But the current narrative of the smart city suffers from major discontents. This is as true locally in Massachusetts as it is nationally and globally. These discontents are a primary concern of the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), a center I direct at Northeastern University and a consortium that includes partners at Harvard University, Boston University, Brandeis University, UMass Boston, Emerson College, the City of Boston, and a variety of other local institutions.

First, what purpose do these technologies serve? They often look like solutions in search of a problem, rather than tools that were built to address a pressing need. Related, have community voices been engaged in the development and implementation of such technologies? It is not always clear how they will improve the lives of everyday people from across the demographic spectrum.

Last, there is a rapidly growing digital divide between can and cannot cities. Some, like Boston, have the resources to experiment with such projects. Many of the rest—cities like Worcester, Lowell, and Fall River—cannot. And yet the many challenges facing cities, including opioids, housing, transportation, and climate change, stretch beyond municipal boundaries.

They are regionwide and require collaboration across cities. Innovation will only accomplish so much if it is limited to a select few locales. This is why BARI’s annual conference, occurring on Friday at the Massachusetts State House and co-hosted with Microsoft and made possible by a range of other sponsors and partners, is exploring the theme of The Smart, Connected Commonwealth. Our goal is to better understand how cities across greater Boston can learn from each other and coordinate in the use of innovation to address shared challenges.

In order to get there, however, we need to reject the prevailing smart cities narrative and its focus on flashy, science fiction-like technologies. Ironically, this narrative leads us down a path that fails to capitalize on other opportunities made possible by digital data and technology that are available right now for all cities.

Today, cities, agencies, companies, and non-profits are all generating data—about their operations, about their goals and outcomes, about their interactions with partners, clients, and constituents. These data are often sitting quietly in spreadsheets, underappreciated as the mere byproduct of computers. But they hold an untapped wealth of knowledge about the urban landscape.

We need, then, to reclaim the word “smart.” What does it mean to be smart? A smart person can gather information and synthesize it into new insights. A smart person can identify challenges and problems and craft creative solutions. A smart person is not dependent upon technology, but instead finds effective ways to put technology to good use.

Following this logic, a smart city is one that can leverage data to better understand its communities and find new and improved ways to serve them—be they technological or not. Further, a smart city must capitalize on the full range of expertise at its disposal, including researchers, policymakers, practitioners, technologists, and community leaders and members, ensuring that the most is made of the opportunities created by data and technology.

A smart city, then, is one that uses predictive algorithms to prioritize the precious time and resources of case workers to support children at greatest risk of abuse. It is one that uses sensors to prevent sewage from backflowing into people’s homes. It is one that uses algorithms to increase the equitable access to quality schools—and also recognizes that a technological solution alone does not empower families to pursue the education they want for their children.

As I described in my recent book on The Urban Commons, a smart city not only implements a 311 system to improve the maintenance of public spaces and infrastructure, but is attentive to why members of the public would want to report potholes and street light outages in the first place. In sum, a smart city is creative, thoughtful, and collaborative in how data and technology can be used to improve the lives of its residents.

Meet the Author
The Smart, Connected Commonwealth conference embodies this vision for the 21st century city by bringing together representatives of academia and the public, private, and non-profit sectors to share data-driven research and policy work from across greater Boston. The hope is that the conversations from the day will catalyze more such efforts in an increasing number of agencies and municipalities throughout Massachusetts; that they will identify ways that cities can learn from each other and partner together on shared challenges, from crime and opioids to housing and education to climate change and resilience.

The time is ripe for all cities to become smart cities, and Massachusetts can chart a course for getting there, providing an example for others across the country and around the globe.

Dan O’Brien is faculty at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and co-director of the Boston Area Research Initiative at Northeastern University; he is also author of The Urban Commons: How Data and Technology Can Rebuild Our Communities.