Planning December 2017

Driving the Smart, Just City

Smart cities aren’t just about technology; they’re about making cities work better for all residents.

Illustration by Robert Hanson.

By Madeline Bodin

A decade ago, smart cities were all about the smart grid. Electric utilities needed fiber optic cable, smart meters, and data analysis to make the electrical system more efficient and resilient. Five years ago, smart cities were about bringing digital innovations to municipal government. Meetings were broadcast online, archived, and searchable by keyword. Zoning maps and building permits not only went online, but they were also interactive and three-dimensional. Today, innovations in transportation are leading the way, while once cutting-edge smart city functions have become available beyond small pilot programs and smartphones have provided access to smart city services to nearly everyone.

Where cities once hoped to integrate digital technologies into city management, new data-driven technologies, such as ride-sharing services and self-driving cars, are emerging from the private sector, creating new traffic patterns and new rhythms in city life. With all of these forces driving smart city development, cities are finally becoming smart in ways the average citizen can experience daily.

Yet, for all the good they do, smart city functions carry the risk of making existing social and economic inequities worse. To ensure a future that is equitable and sustainable, smart cities need planners to apply their traditional talents for creating consensus and facilitating collaboration to smart city design.

Smart cities also need planners to chart a course for technology implementation in a way similar to how they chart the course for a city's development. In transportation, planners' skills are needed not just to respond to new traffic patterns, but also to think of new ways of using transportation.

Driving force

Transportation is at the fore of smart city innovation for a couple of reasons: a successful federal initiative, the U.S. Department of Transportation's recent Smart Cities Challenge, and the fact that our ideas about transportation itself are being disrupted by technological innovation.

In 2016, the DOT announced that Columbus, Ohio, had won its Smart City Challenge. The victory awarded Columbus up to $40 million from the U.S. DOT and up to $10 million from Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Inc. The city had already raised $90 million from other private partners.

Columbus is currently rolling out more than a dozen projects, starting with a vehicle connectivity system, smart streetlighting, and a pedestrian collision-avoidance system for transit vehicles. Next, the city will move on to implement a common payment system and planning for multimodal trips. Eventually, it will link patient scheduling at a hospital with transit schedules in an effort to reduce infant mortalities by encouraging prenatal health care visits for expectant mothers who lack access to reliable transportation. Residents will see these projects in action in 2018, and they will serve as models for other cities.

But Columbus's good fortune and leadership is not the biggest benefit to come from the challenge.

Before the Smart City Challenge, only a few of the nation's largest cities had comprehensive plans to make their cities smarter, says Anthony Townsend, a smart cities consultant with the New York City-based firm Bits and Atoms, and the author of the book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for A New Utopia. Now, the 78 cities that applied to the challenge (that's one application from nearly every mid-sized U.S. city, U.S. DOT's documents say) have smart transportation visions — an exponential increase.

"Many of the runners up are moving forward [with their plans] anyway," says Stuart Cowan, chief scientist for the Smart Cities Council, an alliance of more than 120 companies collaborating to find smart cities solutions.

But transportation innovation is not waiting for a governmental mandate. Disruption is already here, as planners know — from car-sharing and ride-hailing services to electric cars to autonomous vehicles. (For more on the planning implications of these transportation disruptions, see the April 2017 issue of Planning.)

And, without quality data, communications, and a clear vision for the future, these transportation disruptions can just as easily cause harm as good.

"A handful of powerful tech and automotive companies are once again putting automobiles at the forefront of transportation," Townsend says. "Planners have been working for decades to overcome that auto-centric policy framework, but it's all at risk right now."

To reduce congestion and increase sustainability, Brooks says, a transportation system needs all its components: robust, high-capacity public transit; shared mobility; and active transportation like biking and walking. "You need all of them, working together," he says.

Using a mix of transportation modes will only work if it is fun, simple, and cost-effective, says Cowan. "This is where smart cities shine." He imagines an app that will provide users with the most carbon- and cost-effective route to their destination.

He's already seen a step toward that in a single monthly fee that covers access to public transit, bikes, rental cars, and taxis in Finland and a few cities in other European countries (made possible by an app called Whim). He predicts the U.S. will see a one-fee system in the next few years.

One sticking point is that when data from both the private and public sectors is needed to make a system work, the two sides are not necessarily going to share. In January 2017, Uber's response to pressure from cities was to release some of its data on its Movement website. It's seen by many smart cities experts as a compromise that doesn't give cities all the information they need but provides more than was available before.

Smart Columbus: The Smart Columbus Vision will use technology to break down silos in an effort to improve quality of life, grow the economy, provide jobs and opportunity, lead in logistics, and foster sustainability. Source: U.S. Department of Transportation.

Digital master plans

Real-time data is the fuel of smart cities. But it's not enough for municipalities to manage things on the fly. They need to plan the steps they will take to build smart cities, and have a vision of what that smart city will do for residents once the technology is in place.

"The technology may be driving change, but driving change toward what?" asks Carissa Slotterback, AICP, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota, whose research focuses on stakeholder engagement.

The answer to that question comes via an approach that planners have used for generations — comprehensive planning. But it's an innovation to the other partners who are working with them to create smart cities, who are typically accustomed to planning for shorter time frames and top-down solutions to problems.

Townsend calls these documents "digital master plans," though it is important to note that these are not traditional comprehensive plans presented in a digital format. These are plans that specifically prioritize smart city functions and outline the steps required to achieve them.

Townsend was inspired by Dublin, Ireland's Digital Masterplan, and also by his own academic background in planning. He credits New York City (2011) and Barcelona (2012) with creating the first digital master plans for a major city. Chicago, London, and Dublin followed, publishing their plans in 2013. They were joined by Singapore and Hong Kong (2014), and San Francisco (2015). Today, he says, smaller cities such as Kansas City, Missouri, and West Hollywood, California, have also created digital master plans.

In a working paper on digital master plans created for New York University, Townsend wrote, "These plans are attempts to mobilize local stakeholders around visions, goals, and road maps to adapt to these external technological and economic pressures, within local social, economic, and political constraints."

Townsend says those first digital master plans addressed several core issues: e-government, promoting the information technology industry, citizen engagement, open data, IT infrastructure, internet access, IT skills, and, finally, urban infrastructure. In New York City and Chicago, the cities' chief information officers led the plans' creation.

"These are generally not consensus documents in the sense of more traditional kinds of urban plans," he says. "Also unlike traditional plans, they lack substantial quantitative bases of evidence upon which to base their proposals."

So far, these plans resemble business plans as much as comprehensive planning documents. Cities would benefit by adding information and ideas from a broader array of stakeholders to their digital master plans, as municipal comprehensive plans do.

The Smart Cities Council is aware of how digital master plans differ from typical planning documents and is seeking to bridge the divide, notes Cowan. "We often work with regions to create smart cities road maps. We always invite strong representation from planning departments to make sure the road map doesn't get bogged down in a lot of tech and to make sure it is tied to the goals of the city."

The slow and deliberate way municipal governments typically do business can be a poor match for the changing perspective of a city's private-industry technology suppliers or partners. U.S. cities are hamstrung when they put out a 100-page request for proposal, Cowan says, or when they try to specify what sensors, devices, and software will be used more than a few months into the future. Today's technology changes too quickly for this mindset.

Cowan advocates an agile approach that's based, not surprisingly, in software development. The Agile Cities approach tightly focuses its plans and seeks out continuous feedback from stakeholders, which is used to adjust and improve the plan.

The bottom line for planners: "You can't create great cities and great communities through technology," Slotterback says. "Planners know that very well. Ensuring that they are at the table and have an active role is essential to bring a planner's perspective on quality of life concerns and social equity to the process."

Planning for equity

A smart city is a connected city, but not everyone automatically reaps the benefits of those connections. Smart cities that are also just, fair, inclusive, and equitable must be cultivated.

Smart cities can magnify the digital divide in several ways. Some residents' digital access is limited to half-hour sessions at the public library, while others have only a smartphone and a monthly cap on data.

"The nature of this technology is to separate, exclude, and prioritize certain connections over others — based on ability to pay or connectivity," Townsend says. "If you care, you have to get better at bending these networks to measure what is fair or sustainable."

Access to technology, such as broadband internet access, generally comes from the private sector and is therefore profit driven. This can lead to "digital redlining," where high-speed digital networks are not built in low-profit-margin rural areas or low-income urban areas. (For more on broadband access see "The Need for Speed," October 2017.)

Being able to use an automated vehicle on demand provides benefits to both a city and individuals. But, Brooks says, "If using an on-demand automated vehicle requires a credit card and a smartphone, then a large swath of the population that doesn't use those things can't access the service."

In terms of using technology for public engagement, Slotterback says there is risk in thinking of it as a substitution for traditional methods. A key concern is access.

"Any time we refer people to a website, we have to ask, [does everyone] have internet access? If a phone is their only access, are they able to see and interact with, for example, an online mapping feature by phone, or does it have to be a computer?" she says.

And while adding technology to public engagement frees people from attending meetings, it doesn't reduce other barriers, such as familiarity with the planning process or skepticism about the role of government, Slotterback says.

Townsend agrees. "As fashionable as it has become in the developed world, crowdsourcing is highly regressive. It presumes a surplus of volunteer time and energy," he writes in his book Smart Cities.

These were the issues that Gregory Donovan, an assistant professor at Fordham University in New York City, addressed in his service learning class "Designing Smart Cities for Social Justice." At a local settlement house — a community center that provides recreation, education, and social services — the class discovered that while technology is good at exposing problems, it can't solve them alone.

For example, says Donovan, whose academic background is in environmental psychology, predictive policing algorithms that focus police presence in areas that have experienced high crime rates in the past can quickly erode the police's relationship with citizens in targeted communities. But when residents are engaged to address a crime hot spot, the result can be both a better solution and a better relationship between citizens and the police.

Another thing the class learned: Trying to use technology to replace human connections, which are particularly important in underserved communities, is a mistake. Talking to a neighbor face-to-face reinforces a relationship, Donovan says. Tapping a service request into a smartphone app doesn't.

"People are starting to recognize the digital divide and are trying to bridge it," Brooks says. "But I don't think anybody has hit on 'the thing.' I'm inclined to believe there isn't one solution. It's going to take a multitude of solutions."

New York City and Kansas City have installed public computer kiosks, he notes. (The kiosks are works in progress. New York had to pull the plug on some features because people were pulling up couches to the kiosks and turning them into outdoor living rooms.)

Other cities are trying smartcards that can be reloaded at gas stations and grocery stores as an alternative to credit cards. And yet other cities are experimenting with low-cost cell phones. "None of them is a silver bullet," Brooks says.

The effort to bridge the digital divide is worth it, says Cowan. "Smart city technology can improve access and connectivity for those who are marginalized in some way, which can include huge numbers of people." One way to look at social ills is as a series of disconnections, he suggests. Smart city technology can reconnect people to economic opportunities. It can reconnect disabled and older people to greater mobility. It can offer access to information and input into the city planning process.

"If you want to use these smart technologies to bring people back into the economy, or connect them to city services, or for better mobility, then there are great examples of how to do that. There is huge potential."

Madeline Bodin is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Planning.


Smart Cities and Sustainability Initiative report:

Smart Cities Council resources:

Anthony Townsend's working paper on digital master plans:

APA has covered the Smart City Challenge: Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh: Columbus, the challenge winner:

Q&A: Autonomous vehicles, electric cars, next-generation bike share: These technologies are shaking up transportation.