The concept of Smart Cities offers the promise of urban hubs leveraging connected technologies to become increasingly prosperous, safe, healthy, resilient, and clean. What may not be obvious in achieving these objectives is that many already-existing utility assets can serve as the foundation for a Smart City transition. The following is a broad discussion on the areas of overlap between utilities and smart cities, highlighting working knowledge from experience at PG&E.
Brett Hudson: How is technology impacting social and economic divisions in cities?
Ubiquitous information and communication technology (ICT) holds overwhelmingly positive promise to bridge social and economic divides within cities.
The rise of ICTs has diminished the role that long-standing institutions play in many parts of society. Institutions have traditionally provided a structured and cost-effective way for individuals to meet their needs and goals.
As ICTs became pervasive, they inspired a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) culture that encourages people to tap into their own innate potential and immediate networks rather than relying on institutions to accomplish those same goals. DIY culture is a natural result of ubiquitous ICTs; these technologies have dramatically lowered the cost for individuals to accomplish far more of their respective goals using far less time and resources, which rewards the individual with an unprecedented power that can exist entirely outside of any institution.
Many traditional institutional structures simply cannot compete with the DIY culture, which forces them to adapt, become irrelevant or simply be supplanted through disruptive innovation. Consequently, the modern economy’s DIY culture is pulling power away from embedded institutions and delegating it to individuals—particularly networks of individuals—leading to an inevitable transition from an institution-based society to a network-based society.
Why is this transition so important?
A network-based economy provides a fundamentally new power structure that rests outside of the traditional institutional structure. Tapping into the DIY culture has become increasingly commonplace, even essential, for forward-thinking business models. In recent years, ICTs have dramatically expanded the potential of network-based tools like crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and crowdspeaking (crowd-anything, really). The pervasiveness of these models indicates the potential power that an individual can exercise when tapping into a broad network versus going through a confined institutional structure. Why raise capital through institutional finance to seed your idea when you can engage an entire network of individuals with a greater likelihood of success?
This transition to a network-based economy also creates a challenge. While private sector institutions are built to adapt or be innovatively disrupted, many public sector institutions are not. This obstinate institutional structure could indicate why the public is becoming increasingly disaffected with government, particularly among Millennials that tend to be entrenched in DIY culture. Government is slow to adapt to technological changes and fundamental shifts in society, but given its nature, cannot be innovatively disrupted or supplanted with more effective ideas. When government loses its ability to solve problems, the public becomes disengaged, angry or both.
There is hope.
While the rise of ICTs are making it difficult for governments’ institutional structures to stay relevant in the DIY economy, embracing technology and DIY culture at the local level of government may also be its savior. The tech-driven DIY culture is forcing private sector institutions to identify business models that cede or share power with individuals. City governments can do the same to re-engage and unleash a latent creative potential in their citizenry.
For example, new network-based civic organizations are coming to fruition, like civic crowdfunding platforms neighbor.ly and citizinvestor, which could expand the role in which citizens play in their city’s financial decisions. As more of these kinds of platforms come online, it will continue to shift the influence away from the institution and into the hands of the individual, which expands the influence that she can exert over her community.
A transition away from institutional-based governance into network-based governance holds promise to overcome economic and social divisions within our communities. When cities embrace ICT and DIY culture, it opens up the potential to engage and empower new voices that have not participated in government’s traditional institutional structure. A shift in the power structure can equip underserved communities, which have not traditionally had the voice, power or resources to influence the institutional structure of government, with the necessary tools to create change. Over time, citizens that are closest to their community’s challenges could ideally overcome persistent social and economic structural problems that traditional institutions of government simply could not solve.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
When the idea of smart cities was born, some ten to fifteen years ago, engineers, including me, saw it primarily as a control system problem with the goal of improving efficiency, specifically the sustainability of the city. Indeed, the source of much of the early technology was the process industry, which was a pioneer in applying intelligent control to chemical plants, oil refineries, and power stations. Such plants superficially resemble cities: spatial scales from meters to kilometers, temporal scales from seconds to days, similar scales of energy and material inputs, and thousands of sensing and control points.
So it seemed quite natural to extend such sophisticated control systems to the management of cities. The ability to collect vast amounts of data – even in those pre-smart phone days – about what goes on in cities and to apply analytics to past, present, and future states of the city seemed to offer significant opportunities for improving efficiency and resilience. Moreover, unlike tightly-integrated process plants, cities seemed to decompose naturally into relatively independent sub-systems: transportation, building management, water supply, electricity supply, waste management, and so forth. Smart meters for electricity, gas, and water were being installed. GPS devices were being imbedded in vehicles and mobile telephones. Building controls were gaining intelligence. Cities were a major source for Big Data. With all this information available, what could go wrong?
If you want a healthier community, you don’t just treat illness. You prevent it. And you don’t prevent it by telling people to quit smoking, eat right and exercise. You help them find jobs and places to live and engaging schools so they can pass all that good on, so they can build solid futures and healthy neighborhoods and communities filled with hope.