How academics help make cities smart
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
Academics are often characterized as pedants, focusing on trivial details and missing the big picture. As with most stereotypes there is an element of truth in this caricature – academics seek precision and with that precision, truth. The first thing some academics will say is “define your terms” and in the case of smart cities this is a very relevant question – a question that so far has no universally accepted answer.
Does this matter?
Of course. Smart city projects are expensive, maybe not as expensive as other major infrastructure projects, but expensive nonetheless. Expensive and unproven. The idea that IT can really make a difference in people’s lives in cities, and as importantly, ensure the sustainability of those cities (and of humanity itself), has yet to be accepted either by the people of cities or by their politicians.
In the absence of an accepted definition of a “smart city”, it is difficult to see how the “best” technologies will be developed and widely implemented; every city will take its own path, and will work with a multitude of companies. These companies, often working in isolation, will develop their own solutions to specific problems as defined by each city; solutions that might not be readily deployable in other cities.
In theory, smart city technologies should enable cities to meet the demands of their citizens more equitably, more efficiently and more effectively. However, to reliably meet this vision, the theory has yet to be thoroughly tested and the systems yet to be created; cities, their people and their politicians, have yet to be convinced that money is better invested in smart technologies than in, for example, a new hospital, a by-pass or a new water treatment plant. At least in those cases people can see something as a consequence of their investment, even if that investment does not result in a tangible improvement in service delivery.
Validation and ideation
Research should be an essential part of any smarter city project – to evaluate impacts, to quantify benefits and to provide independent validation.
However, independent evaluation, quantification and validation are not the only role academics can play. Universities are places where new ideas emerge – often the new ideas that change society. These ideas emerge not because academics are necessarily looking for them; unfortunately ideation doesn’t work like that, or more accurately, human creativity doesn’t work like that. Ideas emerge from the interaction of very diverse people, working on very diverse topics. Many times the deeper the knowledge in one area, the more profound the idea when that knowledge collides with other bodies of knowledge. Unfortunately, great ideas tend to arise unexpectedly, untidily and often go unexploited because the mechanisms of exploitation are inadequate or don’t exist.
Meeting shared challenges
Academics should be essential members of any attempt to make any city smarter; they generate ideas and can independently and reliably evaluate innovations. Although some cities have involved academics in the smartening of their cities, such involvement tends not to be critical, essential or substantial.
One consequence is that such programs tend to progress in relative isolation from each other. Of course many projects are managed by major multinational companies, which are skilled at knowledge transfer from project to project. But such companies are necessarily focused on the relative short-term needs of a city and the knowledge they bring to each city tends also to be about the “now” and not the future. Academics are different, of course they also work on the “now”, but the very extensive, international disciplinary network, means that they draw on much deeper and broader knowledge; knowledge that can provide the answers to the highly complex issues facing cities today.
By making local universities (and often through them) and international academia a core element of their evolution in response to population growth, climate and economic change; cities are able to accelerate their meeting their own challenges and accelerate the global community in meeting its shared challenges.
This is a powerful argument for the involvement of academics in smart city projects – as integrated members of local and international teams. One can envisage that international teams of world-leading biologists, computer scientists, engineers, social scientists, economists, etc., might be created by working closely with international companies and cities to accelerate the development of an understanding of cities as ecosystems, and on this basis, to develop internationally implementable solutions.
However, this vision would not, I think, be ultimately successful. Why? Because it ignores the fact that universities, and therefore the academics they employ, form a major part of the economies and societies of many cities. In many cities, the local universities, particularly those associated with major hospitals are a city’s major employer, with their employees and students representing a large and important component of the city’s population.
Universities as local employers and as corporate citizens are in a unique position to contribute to realizing a city’s vision to be smart, sustainable and successful. The combination of assets – buildings, roads, parks, etc. – with trained researchers and with their students, a ready and willing population of research ‘subjects’ and participants makes them an asset that a city and its partners can utilize to research, develop, demonstrate and evaluate new approaches to managing the city, engaging with its citizens and planning for a just, sustainable and successful future.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.
More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures.
We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs. Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?