(Photo by Brady Dale)
The phrase “smart city” conjures up images of gleaming new infrastructure, from intelligent street lights to NASA-style command centers. In reality, however, technology’s biggest impact on urban life is much less flashy.
Rather than betting on VR headsets or other currently popular interfaces, communities that invest in six underlying capabilities are best positioned for the longer term:
- Allowing personalized recognition between people and systems
In the popular imagination, small towns are where “everybody knows your name,” sharing goods and spaces without a second thought. The urban bike rack may seem like the polar opposite, yet programs like Citi Bike entrust strangers to pick up objects worth hundreds of dollars and drop them off across town. Such systems recognize individuals and extend privileges accordingly, using technology from biometrics to token-based authentication to enable the sharing economy. If sharing one’s home is an expression of faith in fellow citizens, Airbnb is an early example of how technology expands circles of trust, bringing aspects of small communities to even the largest cities.
- Providing context-aware, location-based information for efficient and engaged movement
Mobile phones with ubiquitous GPS have nearly rendered the feeling of being lost obsolete, yet the built environment is only beginning to understand where people want to go. While autonomous vehicles dominate headlines, simply understanding people’s locations and desires offers both a big economic and social payoff. Ridesharing services like Via blur the distinction between private and public transportation, effectively creating “on-demand buses.” Similarly, by analyzing millions of data points from Amsterdam to Singapore, the MIT Senseable City Lab estimates that intelligently matching riders could reduce the total number of taxi trips by as much as 40 percent.
- Observing, understanding and anticipating the world around us, from the movement of people to the quality of our environment
Sensors are hidden but ubiquitous components of the urban landscape. Beyond piecemeal installations, communities are recognizing the benefits of a holistic approach. The Array of Things project is deploying environmental sensors across Chicago, aiming to be a “fitness tracker” that captures and analyzes data impacting quality of life, including air quality, climate and noise pollution. New York City’s recently announced Neighborhood Innovation Labs take this a step further, partnering with communities, government, technologists and educators to solve locally-identified challenges, starting in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
- Creating secure, convenient methods to pay for goods and services
Blockchain, best known as the technology behind bitcoin, is finding unexpected applications in the built environment. The Brooklyn Microgrid shows how solar power can be shared across a neighborhood, improving sustainability and resilience to disruptions. By facilitating decentralized, low-cost and secure transactions, blockchain empowers citizens to participate in what had previously been the exclusive purview of large utilities. Such peer-to-peer approaches offer the potential to transform other urban markets, from ridesharing to real estate.
- Linking people to services, resources, amenities and each other
In a world where internet-connected devices outnumber humans, connectivity is essential to competitiveness. Through LinkNYC, my company, Intersection, is replacing old payphone infrastructure and bringing free gigabit wireless to New York City, where nearly 20 percent of residents lack broadband at home. Though the kiosks themselves are becoming a fixture of the streetscape, LinkNYC’s biggest impact may be invisible, with each unit supporting hundreds of simultaneous users. Since launching last year, over 1.3 million individuals have registered to use the WiFi, with over 5 million sessions occurring each week. As access to high-speed broadband is democratized, more citizens will be able to fully participate in their community’s growth.
- Enabling different systems, information sources and data types to work together
As the examples above demonstrate, no technology operates in isolation. Just as smartphone apps connect with each other, physical systems need interoperability. Unlike consumer applications, however, systems in the built environment are harder to interconnect, from elevators to energy systems. Cities and real estate developers that overcome traditional biases towards closed and proprietary systems can provide a platform for others to build upon and improve.
To improve people’s lives, technology needs to serve people, not vice versa. Questions of accessibility and equity must remain at the forefront as communities envision responsive neighborhoods. While no one can predict what technologies will dominate next year’s headlines, places that embrace these foundational capabilities will be ready for whatever comes next. Beyond simply being “smart” today, such communities enable all of us to collaborate in building better environments tomorrow.