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Cautiously excited about smart cities

What gets you excited? A great meal at a famous restaurant? The Stanley Cup? What about smart cities? Perhaps, but more than likely, you don’t really spend much time thinking about it, much less get excited about it. That is understandable, but a glimpse into where we are headed might just might prove exciting, if not horrifying. For me, the idea of smart cities is certainly exciting, but it is also horrifying at the same time. Allow me to explain.

At a basic level, most people think of smart cities as ones where sensors have been deployed in a number of different functions that provide an element of control and response to certain conditions ostensibly making life better for its citizens. They might have traffic lights that operate in sequence and can sense when there are cars at the light allowing traffic to flow better than it would otherwise. Almost all cities employ this in varying degrees. They might have garbage cans that alert the city when they are close to being filled, thereby reducing the city’s operating costs while ensuring the garbage cans stay available. They might have sensors on the public buses feeding a transportation application so you can know when your bus is arriving or running late. They might be deploying environmental sensors to measure air quality in neighborhoods or water quality at the beaches to know when there are issues that need to be addressed, like closing the beach. There could even be sensors in parking spaces, where drivers can more easily locate available spaces instead of driving around creating more traffic and burning more fuel.

But there are other elements to smart cities that have more to do with planning and architecture. For instance, there might be a well-planned system of bike paths through the city, complimented by a large-scale bike share program, which is true in many cities today. There might be building codes and corresponding tax policies to bring about much more energy efficient “green buildings,” which is also becoming more and more prevalent. Still yet, there might be other policies discouraging passenger cars inside the city in lieu of public transportation (such as the fees charged in London for bringing your car into the city), or there might even be a well-thought-out system of parks and green areas — the opportunities are endless.

There are examples all around us that are really cool. In a nutshell, they are generally a function of a well-considered plan to make the city more livable and productive for its citizens through infrastructure, laws and certainly technology. But more and more, we are beginning to see these in combination, and the rate at which these ideas are becoming a reality is impressive. Transportation is a great example. For instance, the bike share programs are becoming more expansive, but also highly instrumented, both in the bikes and the bike stations. Most public transportation modalities (buses, trains, subways, ferries) are being built or retrofitted with technology for tracking, as well as many other functions to improve the quality of service and cost of operating the asset. People are coming to expect that they can use their cell phones to understand when the next train will be or if there are delays, and even to purchase their electronic ticket. The street lights along the roads are changing colors, from the costly yellow of sodium vapor lights to bright white LED lights. These are not only more energy efficient, but they are connected, meaning the city can know their status (Are they on or off? Is there a problem?). And they can also be aware of their surroundings — for example, the hockey game ends, so the lights get brighter for the fans coming out into the streets. They might even blink in a certain pattern to alert drivers and pedestrians of an oncoming emergency vehicle. Moreover, the light poles are no longer just light poles. They are charging stations for electric vehicles. They are Wi-Fi hotspots that can “talk to your cars,” and your cars can talk back to them — e.g., your car hits a pothole and tells the city via the light pole. The city then tells the cars ahead of the pothole that either results in the car avoiding the pothole altogether, or adjusting its suspension dynamically in anticipation.

Then there is the data. Data can be both the kryptonite as well as the Holy Grail. For starters, I would be shocked if there is not a shift to provide control — if not outright ownership — of the data by those deploying the IoT-enabled equipment (as opposed to those providing it). In the specific case of cities, this means the city and its citizens. The more thoughtful architectures will deploy with the ability to combine many elements of this data for deeper interrogation and analytics. In other words, there will be a separation between the creation of the data and the consumption of the data. But the key value is in the data. So the obvious questions become who controls that, and what are they doing with it? There are many opinions on this. Certainly there are large technology companies investing in the infrastructure that feel it is advantageous to own the data. That should not be surprising at all. The investment that goes into all this needs to be monetized, and owning the data is clearly one way to get there. But the early projects and associated familiarity and learning that goes along with these efforts has begun to expose this consideration, and the potential controversy associated with it. Concerns ranging from privacy to the ethical considerations around having a specific company becoming the primary beneficiary of a publicly funded initiative has evoked a certain amount of pushback.

People don’t want Big Brother, although there are clearly some elements of this that are undeniable, so the importance of considering this thoughtfully and deliberately increases. For starters, the data being collected today will pale by comparison to the data being collected tomorrow, yet what is collected today is not insignificant. For instance, think of the license plate reading technology available today that can identify your movements. Is that bad? It isn’t for certain purposes — as some will say, if you are not doing anything wrong, you should not be worried about it. And there are certainly legitimate reasons for this type of technology, most notably toll collection on highways. But when the data is expanded to beacon technology or drones or other combinations of advanced technology capable of tracking your individual movements, then where is the line drawn? Does that help the police? It does. Does it help with city planning? It does. What about modeling population behavior so you can better anticipate and accommodate everything from facilitating a safe and efficient flow of people and vehicles — for example, after the air and water show with a million people along the shoreline to the effective deployment of emergency resources in the event of a hazardous waste spill downtown? These would be capabilities that would benefit everyone. But do you want your specific behavior combined with other information about you to be categorized and sold so that Uber, Abercrombie or Subway can target you for advertising? Instinctively you probably do not, but if you are unaware this is going on and you “happen” to see ads that attract you, you may unconsciously like that and benefit from it. This is a not so future world rendering of what happens today on the Web.

The point is that it is a perilous journey that must be carefully considered. That said, the likelihood of not making the journey is virtually zero. This is going to happen, so the thoughtful consideration and planning is critical. How we approach smart cities will be extremely important. Security is incredibly important since the cost of getting it wrong in the future will be significantly greater. Privacy is clearly a key factor for citizens, and this will play out in many public forums, but we can expect to learn from early efforts, good and bad. Europe in particular has seen good work done here, especially in cities like Stockholm, Barcelona and Amsterdam. Many more projects are cropping up and all offer opportunities to learn and evolve. We are beginning to see this in North America as well. The Array of Things project in Chicago appears to have great potential, but the implementation was not rushed — and in fact, slowed down to ensure that privacy, among other considerations, was properly vetted both in terms of policy as well as the public messaging around it. And in this case, there is a long and growing list of other cities waiting to follow suit with the Array of Things in their cities.

In some ways, the whole idea of smart cities is like a very powerful energy source. It can be harnessed and used to enable good things on a larger scale, but can also do untold damage when the motivation is bad and the control is in the wrong hands. One thing is for certain, our cities are changing forever at an increasing rate, and there is no looking back. I am fearful — and yet excited and certainly optimistic.

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