Saturday, December 10, 2022

When you give a city a brain, don’t forget the heart

I was on a call with a collaborator who, like me, often worked with cities or municipalities to plan and implement modern and innovative infrastructures. As we exchanged stories about our latest projects, he recounted that he had been in a meeting with a group of city officials, and after about 15 minutes into the discussion, the senior director in the room slammed his hands on the table and declared “I’m tired of talking about smart cities, I read an article that said we need to think more about learning cities, that’s the future!”

As we both smiled at each other, because we knew that smart and learning cities are one and the same – we’re even talking about empathetic cities now. However, it made me reflect a little more about how the question of what makes a physical space ‘smart’ has evolved over the past 30 years, and more so, on where it is going in the coming decades ahead of us.

I remember when I was first introduced to the concept of smart and connected infrastructures. I was working at the City of Montreal as a political consultant in 2008 and I was asked to identify new ideas and potential solutions to better manage municipal operations, since I was one of the youngest and most tech savvy people on the team (which meant I was the most proficient in using my Blackberry), it became my research project.

This was a time when cloud computing had started to be introduced, where geomatics software was getting much more powerful, we were in the process of digitizing urban plans, the LEED movement was gaining momentum around the globe and open-source mapping, such as Google Maps, provided us with the foundations of powerful web-based tools that could be shared publicly and used for collaboration. At the time, the entire sector of tech-enabled infrastructure was dominated by the IBMs, Honeywell’s, ETSI’s and telecoms, and the products being proposed, despite being cool, were extremely complex, costly, and unproven, making many of the solutions difficult to implement.

It was clear that the technology was advancing rapidly, but it had not yet reached a point of maturity where we could develop the tools we needed. Of course, there was benefit in being able to make spaces for energy efficient, provide real-time monitoring and analysis, most importantly, there was a greater ability to collect and organize data to support better decision making, and eventually towards an ability to automate, but there also significant limitations when it came to turning our visions into realities, particularly regarding long term costs.

In my earliest efforts to plan to implement some smart city projects, the process turned out to be more of a challenge than we had initially expected. It wasn’t difficult to add connected hardware, set up databases or even create integrated systems that offered some automation (well it was, but there was a clear path forward). We could manage temperature controls, remote manage connected devices, capture real-time user density to know how many people were using the space, even inventory tracking. Building brain, despite requiring some significant

planning and efforts, turned out not to be our biggest challenge. Where things got complicated was when we added the human element to the equation.

Once you enter the rabbit whole of adding a digital layer to any physical space, especially where real people will be populating that environment, there are no limits to the depths of considerations you will need to consider. When you strive for efficiency, you can often forget to plan for the humanity.

Think about the foundational elements of creating ‘smart’ and connected cities. First off, what makes a city? It is a place where a densified geographic area that consists of residences, commercial spaces (retail, entertainment, lodging, offices, industrial), aqueducts, electricity, fiber optics, schools, medical centers, public security (police, fire departments, ambulances), roads, public transit, supply chains, parks, waste management (garbage, recycling, compost), and so much more.

Then add the human element, a large population of people who are actively using that geographic are and who will act in unpredictable ways, both to the betterment and detriment of our society. People with varied social-economic levels, age groups, education levels, privacy concerns, family situations, possibly from different cultures and across political spectrums, with different needs and a multitude of visions for the perfect city.

Now, how do you fuse that all together to generate a data driven decision making system with a high degree of automation that monitors all infrastructures or operations in real-time and provides an equitable user experience that goes across the digital divide.

Yeah, you can’t just stick some sensors on all that, plug in some AI and expect everything to be alright.

It is important to keep in mind, that the transition towards ‘smart’ and connected cities will take decades, if not more, and will ask us to redefine how we think about what a city is and how we use it. This transition will be costly and difficult, but the opportunities that will be generated will create an entirely new economy. Think about when electricity and plumbing were integrated into homes over a century ago, it required us to re-imagine the space around us, but opened the door to better quality of life, sanitation, and home innovation powered by new electronics or appliances. We take appliances like a dishwasher or electric stove for granted, but they literally changed our lives.

As we embark on the next evolution, we now live in an era of unlimited possibilities. The technology we have affordable access to is incredible, we have more experts to manage connected infrastructures, cloud computing to combine datasets, advanced AI, and we are progressing faster than we ever thought possible.

What remains is to create plan that considers the human element of this evolution, considering the digital divide (affordability and ease of use of technology), privacy concerns, social

cohesion, social programs, and access to city services. We must ensure that the places we live, are places that are built with people in mind. This requires an ecosystem of actors with multidisciplinary skillsets all contributing to planning the next generation of cities, because that is where we’ll be living for the next hundred years.

We must be proactive and make inroads to create the society we want and the future we deserve. We must start this process as soon as possible, because the future is now.