Why should we act now toward incorporating and managing Smart City technology? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Why should we act now toward incorporating and managing Smart City technology?

In honor of Infrastructure Week, Research Assistant Sawyer Middeleer explores smart infrastructure—the role of big data and networked connectivity for mobility, climate resilience, citizen engagement and service delivery in Chicago.

Smart Cities Connect

In March, leaders in smart city technology gathered in Kansas City, Missouri for the third annual Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo

Urban development has always been guided by technological innovation. Before long, the smart city “revolution” will seem as revolutionary as covered sewer systems. The pace of innovation is so rapid that cities are carrying out smart initiatives before the long-term implications of making cities “smart” are well understood. This means that we may have less than a decade to set best practices for how smart cities technology will be implemented and operated.

Urban development has always been guided by technological innovation. Before long, the smart city “revolution” will seem as revolutionary as covered sewer systems.

Among the most pressing issues of smart cities technology are equity and fairness. At the Smart Cities Connect morning plenary session on March 28th, San Francisco mayor Mark Farrell powerfully reframed the entire smart cities discussion around technology’s role in society. He spoke about how unequal access to computing services and skills—the so-called “digital divide”—doesn’t just perpetuate entrenched inequality; it worsens it. 35% of low-income African Americans and Hispanics in San Francisco lack internet access beyond a smartphone. As MPC President MarySue Barrett described in an article late last year, the digital divide will affect educational attainment, occupational opportunities, healthcare access and civic participation in profound and long-lasting ways. 

Farrell argued that digital inequity is a fundamental problem for smart cities, and that lasting solutions will ultimately need to come from policymakers. To that end, he proposed that we radically rethink broadband service by switching Internet delivery from a demand model—the way you purchase internet service today—to a utility model, where broadband assets are publicly owned and service is as easy to access as running water. After all, according to Farrell, “The Internet is our 21st century utility,” and internet connectivity will enable previously disconnected households the ability to access job training and services that they wouldn't otherwise.

The pace of innovation is so rapid that cities are carrying out smart initiatives before the long-term implications of making cities “smart” are well understood.

Panelists alongside Farrell also addressed structural equity issues. Maksim Pecherskiy, Chief Data Officer at the City of San Diego talked about how the trend towards “city as a service” (CaaS)—where cities see themselves as service providers and their residents like customers—should lead more cities to emphasize the efficacy and value of their services. From an equity perspective, Pecherskiy argued that because low- to moderate-income communities are the heaviest users of public services, cities should provide them with the best services first. Although cities everywhere certainly aspire to serve their residents the best they can, big data from hundreds of sources might finally give cities more opportunities to take rigorous evidence-based approaches to evaluating services for equitable impact.

While better infrastructure sits on one side of the equation for better smart cities, community-driven smart cities planning is on the other. At one panel session, Pat Graves, Manager of Smart Grid Programs at ComEd, described the partnerships that ComEd and the Illinois Institute of Technology built in Bronzeville while planning one of the first microgrid clusters in the nation. Approved in February of this year, the Bronzeville Community Microgrid project will reduce costs, improve resilience and security, and allow the community to take advantages of renewable energy sources, such as solar. Moreover, this microgrid project is just one part of ComEd’s Community of the Future Initiative, which includes electric mobility projects, STEM education programs and placemaking initiatives. Together, these pilot programs represent an effort to incorporate communities into smart cities development and close the digital divide.

"...If I don’t own my home, how do I convince my landlord to install solar? If I don’t have a street light on my block, how do these investments in better street lights affect me?” —Maksim Pecherskiy, Chief Data Officer at the City of San Diego

 As cities scale up their smart interventions from local pilots to region-wide deployments, understanding community needs is vital to ensuring that smart cities benefit everyone. As Pecherskiy put it, “Solar incentives work well, but if I don’t own my home, how do I convince my landlord to install solar?... If I don’t have a street light on my block, how do these investments in better street lights affect me?”

Thanks to big data analytics, policymakers and city planners today understand their regions better than ever, and mobilize data to make high-stakes decisions. Yet most individuals lack the tools and skills to interpret this information and understand how these decisions will impact their communities. It is crucial that we ensure that individuals in underserved communities have opportunities to access STEM education and can use data resources to advocate for their priorities. Innovations in civic infrastructure have the potential to provide better services at higher quality to all residents, but they also run the risk of reinforcing historical barriers to inclusive growth. Whether Chicago and cities across the country invest in technology that works for everyone will depend on how committed to equity civic and business leaders are in this crucial moment for smart cities.

Sawyer Middeleer is a research assistant at Metropolitan Planning Council and a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

Learn more about smart infrastructure:

"What is a smart city?" by Sawyer Middeleer

"How is smart city technology implemented and scaled?" by Sawyer Middeleer

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