Building a Smart City Upon a Hill


In my Los Angeles neighborhood there is a gnarly 5-way stop. It’s all stop signs, and because of the number of accidents, the city is considering switching to traffic lights. I receive letters from the street department giving me updates and inviting me to comment. There have been multiple neighborhood meetings. Officials have gone a decade back into the accident records and sent surveyors to the intersection a dozen times. I could go on… but perhaps you’re already wondering, “Where’s the “smart city” part of the story?” The thing is, all of that is smart. This is how you change places where people live: you go and ask them. You observe them. You experiment. You make changes and work towards a solution.

More tech-oriented examples of smart cities exist, of course. Barcelona has developed a permanent citizen education and training program for advanced technologies as a way to make the general public more familiar with the possibilities. They also created unique engagement platforms like Decidim.Barcelona that allows for new ways of participatory democracy. In Zaragoza, another Spanish city, over half of the adult population uses a smart citizen card—an all-in-one digital key to municipal services, including public transport, parking, public libraries, swimming pools, and Wi-Fi.

These are wildly different products that take a similar approach to urban innovation. Because how you build is just as important as what you build. Technology has speed embedded in its DNA, with move fast and break things tattooed on its arm. Most of today’s big tech companies are younger than your kids. Meanwhile, there are many cities that have been inhabited for thousands of years. My advice to smart city planners: Take some time removed from deadlines and funding pressures to imagine what your city could be. Make a thoughtful plan that engages the citizens, community groups, and neighborhood associations. Talk with them about what would improve their lives in the city: education, recreation, employment opportunities, rapid response from government services?

The worst way to begin is by ordering a la carte services off a smart city menu that Cisco or IBM has railroaded through other cities. It’s a mistake to start with the random pieces of technology—the sensors, cameras, apps, the big data and analytics—and hope to have something that works for anyone. It’s a formula that enables the vendors to cash in.

Instead, make sure people have access to PCs, smartphones, and a broadband connection. Educate and train citizens as to the good and bad possibilities of potential technologies. Use new communication platforms like ePluribus and CoUrbanize that enable city planners and leaders to engage with their communities. Send out letters, alerts, and notices so the less tech-literate can participate as well. Then arrive at a consensus and start scoping out a framework.

Civic innovation labs are another way to explore creating smart communities. The Seoul Innovation Bureau and the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) are two examples of successful labs. In Boston, MONUM has spun out solutions like Citizens Connect and Street Bump, apps that allow Bostonians to report quality of life issues, such as broken streetlights, potholes and graffiti, directly to the key contact at City Hall. Since their launch, the apps account for over 20 percent of all reported cases. MONUM also launched One Card, which serves as a school ID, library card, community center membership card, and a transit pass. Meanwhile, Where’s My School Bus lets parents track their kids’ busses. What is particularly gratifying about the MONUM efforts is that the projects aren’t limited to the politically active. Boston paves the way for cities to empower and engage the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, new residents, communities of color, students, and others who are often left on the outside looking in.

It’s essential that smart communities be a part of creating a collaborative economy, too. That’s where a city-implemented platform for co-operativism comes in. A platform co-op is a digital website designed to provide a service that is collectively owned and governed by the people who contribute labor, time, skills, and assets. Where corporate “sharing” platforms extract value and distribute it to investors looking for huge returns, community platform co-ops distribute ownership and management to participants. Imagine an app that helps neighbors provide simple elder care services like dropping-off meals, checking blood pressure, or providing rides for seniors. A local maintenance person could fix time-sensitive electrical issues, repair potholes, or mow lawns. Why invest in new parking structures when cities could create an Airbnb for available business lots and personal driveways when they aren’t in use, cutting down on traffic, saving the taxpayers money, and allowing local citizens and businesses to make extra money? How about a localized Indiegogo that could fund community improvement projects or support the launch of neighborhood businesses?

Ultimately, we must put human-centered design, rather than technology, at the heart of our efforts. Innovators in this field include the Stanford D School, the Design Lab at UC San Diego, and companies like IDEO, Frog, and (I would be remiss not to mention my own firm) Treeline. We all use human-centered design methods to create products, services, experiences, and social enterprises. Utilizing this methodology for brainstorming, planning and developing has been adopted and embraced because we’ve kept people’s lives, needs, and desires at the core.

The key is that the cities and their residents, not “Big Tech,” remain at the center of the decision-making. Whether its Des Moines or Istanbul, they need smart city solutions that address their individual needs and unique populations. The great urban theorist Jane Jacobs once said, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” These words provide the blueprint for citizen-led solutions that transform communities into something more connected, adaptable, responsive, democratic—and yes, smart.

[Editor’s note: This is part 1 in a series on Smart Cities. Here are parts 2 and 3.]

Mark is the general manager at Treeline, a US-based technology development and advisory firm. He has co-founded five venture-backed companies, with three successful exits. Follow @

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