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What makes a city 'smart,' anyway?




In recent years, urban planners, cross-sector leaders, and city enthusiasts have trumpeted the rise of "smart cities." As that conversation gets louder, we can't help but ask: What exactly makes a city smart?

There are varied ideas and approaches to developing smart cities, but the broad conversation centers around how information and technology (IT) can be used to plan and manage a city from a centralized hub. Anthony Townsend, a leader in smart city research, conjures up a skeptical image of a "remote-control city" designed by experts to improve efficiency.

When cracking open the smart city idea, one assumes city infrastructure is connected to the Internet, the necessary conduit required for large amounts of data (information in the most essential form) to run through a city's veins. Basic connectivity allows data to be collected and considered before nuanced decisions are implemented across a large and diverse ecosystem. But what does the process of connecting people -- residents and visitors of cities --- to technology, information, and infrastructure actually look like? And how do these smart scenarios translate in places like Detroit and other legacy cities of the Rust Belt where resources are limited and technology and infrastructure are dated?

Recently, Detroit hosted the 2014 Meeting of the Minds (MotM) conference, somewhat of a roving think tank that addresses questions around the role of technology in cities. Each year, global leaders from the civil, private, and public sectors gather to amplify thought partnerships around technology and urban sustainability. This year in Detroit, conference delegates networked over spirits, panel discussions, tours, and TED-like stage presentations with gauzy, electric blue back lighting.
Eindhoven Mayor Gijzel at Meeting of the Minds in DetroitLooking to other smart cities, far and near

The east and west coasts are where you will find a few obvious examples of smart city systems at work.

In San Jose, Calif. (known as the "Capital of Silicon Valley"), Intel sponsors a city-wide network of sensors that are collecting data on air quality, noise pollution, and traffic flow. If a traffic incident occurs on a specific street, government officials can quickly address the issue and reroute traffic, while residents might decide to use a different mode of transportation (like riding a bike instead of driving) after receiving the information. To the east, New York City touts a massive efficiency initiative for public housing that is using smart technology to save energy, which in turn saves the city large sums of money.

But smart city systems are emerging in America's heartland, too.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill PedutoPittsburgh, Detroit's Rust Belt neighbor, shimmered on the MotM stage. Pittsburgh's Mayor Bill Peduto spoke elegantly about creating a framework for participatory civic engagement. His administration builds smart city capacity by leveraging simple tools like a game that teaches schoolchildren the difference between 311 and 911, and Mindmixer, an online forum where residents and city officials swap city improvement ideas. Pittsburgh recently passed open data legislation for which they are actively seeking input from residents in order to build the most useful open data portal.


Debra LamDebra Lam, Pittsburgh's new chief of innovation and performance, began her work in the city by organizing diverse roundtable discussions to collaboratively design an "innovation road map -- a list of problems, solutions, successes and strategies designed to advance the region's position as a national player." In a recent conversation with The Aspen Institute, Lam noted, "Innovation cannot rest on any one individual or chief. It is about the collective spread of knowledge and information, and the iteration of it so that it becomes better, and eventually mainstream."


Both Peduto and Lam's visions are inclusive and their processes seem authentic and collaborative -- whether it's a web platform, process design, or a children's game, each tool strikes at the root to decode complex social systems through the education and participation of residents of all ages.

"There are no end users, there are only begin(ing) users"

If participatory education is one tactic to build a "smart bridge" between a city's infrastructure and its residents, what role can building smart bridges play when dreaming up smart city systems?  

At MotM, leaders from the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands shared stories about the processes they use when working towards a smarter city. During a presentation entitled "Turnaround: Remaking Legacy Cities," Eindhoven Mayor Rob Van Gijzel told the audience, "There are no end users, there are only begin(ing) users." He urged leaders to flip traditional planning models horizontally, moving away from the "bottom up" and "top down" conversation.

Mayor Gijzel's appreciation of process, by way of design thinking and human-centered solutions, is undoubtedly woven into Eindhoven's cultural fabric, and the experimental yet simple "Dutch Design" trademark has sustained global value. Is it a coincidence that the city was once named the world's most intelligent community? As the home of Phillips and the Holland's first public light art program (sound familiar, Detroit?), the dreaming is open to creatives and municipal leaders alike, increasing the chance of implementing innovation within the city's infrastructure.

"Transformative innovation doesn't just happen in special zones or in downtowns. True innovation comes from the grassroots and the edges -- we call this 'distributed innovation' -- the kind that grows organically and infuses a place evenly and equitably," says Greta Byrum, senior field analyst at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, who led a MotM tour around mesh networks and digital stewardship.

If, as Lam believes, policy is not enough and that our cities need participatory approaches to getting smart, can Detroit find a way to help people innovate and participate fully -- both at the core and along the edges -- in using technology? When we look into our toolboxes in Detroit, do we view technology as a tool that connects diverse conversations across a 'smart bridge', or as Mayor Gijzel may put it, across a horizontal spectrum?

Whether we talk about the realization of participatory city platforms in Pittsburgh or the leveraging of a longstanding community of designers to nurture sustained "smart" systems in Eindhoven, all smart cities programs rely on a process of exchange. These conversations don't resemble a Newton's Cradle. As evidenced through chatter on Twitter, MotM delegates spoke of the "dance required for innovative collaboration."

Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit's new deputy technology director for civic community engagement, perhaps said it best a few days after MotM when he spoke at the #micities conference at the University of Michigan: "Innovation cannot be copied and pasted."

True. Innovation is about dynamic relationships between people -- and when we take time to look around, we can see that people in cities all over are dancing. Everyone's got an unique jig. We can find moments to harmonize the trumpets. What does the dance hall look like?

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Nina Bianchi is principal of The Work Department, a communication design and development studio based in Detroit. She partners with businesses and organizations to design tools and participatory processes that make a positive social impact. Since 2002, she has worked with dozens of nonprofits and businesses, including the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, the City of Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Volume Magazine. Follow her @nine_blench and learn more at theworkdept.com.

Kat Hartman is a Detroit-based freelance writer, data analyst, and information designer with data visualization firm, NiJeL. She is currently a fellow at the Civic Data Design Lab at the MIT School of Architecture & Planning. Follow her @kat_a_hartman and check out her online portfolio, kathartman.com.
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