Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Smart Cities And Civic Hacking

This is my first civic hacking post about smart cities. Because smart cities generally try to improve urban life with technology and because of all the data generated by smart cities, they appear to be a potential playground for civic hackers. So I’d like to connect some NE Wisconsin civic hackers with smart city hacks.

In this post I’ll try to answer three questions about smart cities, highlight a couple relevant issues, and propose six potential civic hacks related to smart cities. If I hear from any civic hackers in our area interested in smart cities, you’ll likely see more posts on the topic.

First Question: What is a smart city?

"A smart city uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens."

That’s how the Wikipedia entry for the topic begins. But the smart city label is applied so differently by so many people and organizations around the globe that the Wikipedia entry has ten other alternative definitions listed. Haven’t ever seen that phenomenon before in the Internet's Guide To The Universe. Usually Wikipedia is a lowest common denominator experience where the definition of a term is edited and iterated until diverse viewpoints reach common ground. If I thought it was challenging explaining the nebulous and emerging concept of civic hacking to people in NE Wisconsin, I can just imagine how easy it will be to explain smart city civic hacking!

I couldn’t find what I felt was a good smart city primer to quote from and point you to here. In lieu of a primer, I suggest you read the above Wikipedia entry and the (slightly old) 2012 Fast Company article “What is a smart city.” Then check out the graphic to the right and the graphic below that try to characterize what makes a city smart.

The smart city octagonal graphic from Frost & Sullivan breaks the concept into eight categories.
A more coherent view of what exactly a Smart City is was made by my team at Frost & Sullivan...We identified eight key aspects that define a Smart City: smart governance, smart energy, smart building, smart mobility, smart infrastructure, smart technology, smart healthcare and smart citizen...we eventually defined Smart Cities are those that have least five out of the eight “smart” parameters listed above. Those cities that are only implementing a couple of these are what we define as eco-friendly cities, like Nice in France.”
The smart cities wheel graphic from urban strategist Boyd Cohen splits the smart city issues into six sectors.
“...Most cities can agree that there is real value in having a smart economy, smart environmental practices, smart governance, smart living, smart mobility, and smart people. Within each of these aspirational goals, I have included three key drivers to achieving the goal. There are over 100 indicators to help cities track their performance with specific actions developed for specific needs.”
The eight categories and six sectors are only two of the many ways smart cities have been described. A big reason for diverse characterizations and breakdowns of smart cities is the evolution of what smart cities are. But the two approaches above give an adequate overview of the topic for civic hackers who are new to smart cities.

Second Question: Should NE Wisconsin use a term other than ‘smart cities.’

Although I don’t hear many people (anybody?) in NE Wisconsin talking about smart cities, the concept has been around for quite a while. So long, in fact, that some people involved with urban planning already feel the term is outdated mediaspeak. Alternate terminology is sometimes used by those wanting to avoid connotations of Big Brother and dystopia caused by authoritarian abuse or smart cities gone rogue. The alternate term I like best is ‘resilient cities.’ However, Google shows 4,870,000 search results for smart cities and only 315,000 for resilient cities, so the resilient term will require more explanation and education and likely has less media appeal. For initial discussions and the first few NE Wisconsin civic hacks of this type, smart cities seems to be the better label.

In the December 2014 article “The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy',” The Guardian posits that:
The smart city is, to many urban thinkers, just a buzzphrase that has outlived its usefulness...The smart city concept...seems to have crystallised into an image of the city as a vast, efficient robot – a vision that originated, according to Adam Greenfield at LSE Cities, with giant technology companies such as IBM, Cisco and Software AG, all of whom hoped to profit from big municipal contracts...Jonathan Rez of the University of New South Wales, suggests that “a smarter way” to build cities “might be for architects and urban planners to have psychologists and ethnographers on the team.”
Other terms I’ve seen used for smart cities are ‘sustainable,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘open & agile,’ and ‘innovative’ cities.

Third Question: What smart city projects are cost-effective for NE Wisconsin?

I won’t pretend to know enough about smart city projects to evaluate which ones have a good cost / benefit ratio for cities in our region. The first order of the day for someone who wants to lead the charge on smart cities in our area will be education. The leader(s) for this aspect of civic hacking will have to educate themselves if they’re not already well-informed on the subject. Then they’ll have to educate the rest of us. The Anthony Townsend book below talking about smart cities and civic hackers should help with that education, as will the links throughout this post.

From a civic hacker geek viewpoint, smart cities have definite benefits and interesting opportunities, the most obvious of which is lots of data being generated by sensors and connected systems. So one approach to smart cities might be to identify a type of civic hack which inherently has benefits for NE Wisconsin, then figure out a smart city technology that will generate cost-effective data for that civic hack.

Book: Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia

If you’re seriously interested in smart cities, you’ll probably want to read this book by Anthony Townsend, in addition to “The Responsive City” by Susan Crawford. In their review of Townsend’s book, says:
“...Anthony Townsend’s new book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia...takes a valiant stab at balancing the great promise of the data age, civic technology and hackable cities with all the ways it could be used to manipulate, oppress or even put us in danger as it ostensibly makes us safer. Sorting out exactly which side Townsend, a research director at the Institute for the Future, falls on is hard to discern between his anecdotes.,,he’s tough to pin down. But that’s for the better, because he puts you in the position of coming to your own conclusions. And that’s what he wants. Spoiler alert: Townsend closes with a call for his reader to join the long hack into more efficient, more resilient, more democratic future cities. 
...his final chapter...articulates concise and important guidelines for city leaders and civic hackers, such as upgrading what you have and clearing out what’s obsolete while you go, creating as much publicly held data infrastructure as possible, sticking to open source no matter what the salesmen say, not being afraid to build your applications from something that worked in another city, and make broad engagement a priority…”
Dangers or Negatives of Smart Cities

Although data geeks and tech enthusiasts can see lots of interesting and cool ways that smart cities can improve urban life, this subject is like most other topics. Anything that has many ways to be beneficially used also has innumerable ways to be abused. It’s a network effect thing; when large numbers of people or large amounts of money are involved, someone will find ways to game the system and take advantage of the people and money. With technology connecting everything for everybody, smart cities could turn into Big Brother or terrorists could hack into the utility systems and turn off everyone’s electricity and water.

In NPR’s All Tech Considered, Anthony Townsend says:
“...Probably the most important [dangers of smart cities] is that the way that these projects are structured is that these companies don't just build a system like you would build a road, like a contractor would build a road, and then hand it over to the city to operate and maintain. They stay involved, and, you know, in many cases with technologies, like cloud computing, the infrastructure that's providing a service to that city — say, you know, running the traffic signals — may not actually be physically located in that city. It may not even be in the same country. And so, essentially a city is outsourcing its brains…” 
An aspect of smart cities that has to top priority is cybersecurity. Convenience and complexity are the antithesis of security. The NYT article “Smart City Technology May Be Vulnerable to Hackers” made me think of controlling traffic lights in the movie “The Italian Job.”
Last year, Cesar Cerrudo, an Argentine security researcher and chief technology officer at IOActive Labs, demonstrated how 200,000 traffic control sensors installed in major hubs like Washington; New York...and Melbourne, Australia, were vulnerable to attack...”
Maybe Smart Cities Should Focus on Citizen Education

In “What does it mean to be a “Smart City?”” Joe Cortright suggests that cities are ‘smart’ when they,
“...have highly skilled, well-educated residents...We can explain fully 60% of the variation of economic performance across large U.S. metropolitan areas by knowing what fraction of the adult population has attained a four-year college degree.  There’s strong evidence that the positive effects of greater education are  social–it spills over to all residents, regardless of their individual education. Educational attainment is a powerful proxy measure of city economic success because having a smart population and workforce is essential to generating the new ideas that cause people and businesses to prosper...There’s no evidence that the relative efficiency of water delivery, power supply, or transportation across cities has anywhere near as strong an effect on their success over time as does education. It is in this process of creating new ideas that cities excel.  They are R&D facilities and incubators, and not just of new businesses, but of art, music, culture, fashion trends, and all manner of social activity...We don’t have an exacting recipe for how this happens.  But we do know some of the elements that are essential.  They include density, diversity, design, discovery and democracy.”
If the education level of cities is important to their long term success and sustainability, what are the current levels of education in NE Wisconsin cities and what is being done to maintain or increase that level of education? Should civic hacking energy be focused more on diversity and the other three Ds listed above than on smart cities, or will smart cities help attract and retain well-educated residents?

No Megacities In NE Wisconsin; Why Should We Care About Smart Cities

The only reason to care about or implement smart city technology or strategies is if there’s a benefit for the city, whether it’s a small city or a megacity. Most of the early applications of smart city technology has been in megacities. To evaluate the benefits for NE Wisconsin, we have to become knowledgeable about what smart cities are and how the concept might be applied in our region. If we decide our region should just wait until the benefits for cities of 15,000 to 150,000 are proven elsewhere first, what message does that send to people who might consider moving to our area. And what message does that send to tech-savvy NE Wisconsin residents who wonder if they would be better off moving to a city or region where they won’t be ten to twenty years behind the technology curve?

The article "How Should We Implement Smart Cities?" talks about grassroots action and how different cities have different needs.
"There are over 570,000 local governments in the world, and the vision for the future is going to be parallel innovation in all of those rather than a couple of megacities. That’s what I’m hoping will come out of this — that people will no longer say that visions of smart cities are something that they have to consume, but something that they can create on their own..."
Potential Civic Hacks For NE Wisconsin Smart Cities

  1. Launch a monthly or quarterly discussion group or informal task force for “Smart Cities In NE Wisconsin” that would:
    1. Develop and agree on one term and definition of ‘smart city’ for NE Wisc of ‘smart city’ (resilient cities, sustainable cities, connected cities, ???).
    2. Develop Smart Cities: NE Wisconsin Primer to inform residents of the region who want to get involved or who just wonder what smart cities are.
    3. Define ‘smart’ city applications and inventory what ones are in place and planned short term or long term.
    4. Identify smart city applications civic hackers might be involved in or might launch.
    5. Make connections with people on smart city projects outside NE Wisconsin.
  2. Connect with National League of Cities and League of Wisconsin Municipalities, to learn about smart city projects in Wisconsin or in other cities of 15,000 to 150,000.
  3. Explore the potential role of a community mesh network in NE Wisc smart city projects.
  4. Evaluate a pilot project with Chicago’s Array of Things.
  5. Apply to be an IEEE Smart City Workshop Host. Although cities in NE Wisconsin don’t fit the program criteria, I think it would be worthwhile to submit a proposal for a regional network of emerging smaller smart cities. 
  6. Develop smart city hackathon or other pilot project proposal for NE Wisconsin and reach out to the Smart Cities Council and others for collaboration and sponsorship.  

If you feel smart cities is a smart move for civic hacking in NE Wisconsin, contact Bob Waldron at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com, and we can discuss Next Steps for smart cities.


Additional resources if interested in smart cities:
Chicago's smart city: From open data to rat control
Primer On Smart Cities, 2014 MIT slide show pdf 
How Smart Cities Are Promoting API Usage
Real-Time Open Data
Smart city articles in The Guardian
Smart Cities Council 
MIT City Science
Getting Smarter About Smart Cities, worthwhile discussion, but Idisagree with starting point of “Begin with an Economically-Driven, Technologically-Focused Vision”
Strategic Opportunity Analysis of the Global Smart City Market


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