Building a Smart City Upon a Hill

Opinion

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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.]

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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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