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Location: Home / Technology / Smart city evolution: How cities have stepped back from a 'tech arms race'

Smart city evolution: How cities have stepped back from a 'tech arms race'

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Editor's note: This story is part of Smart Cities Dive's "Reassessing the smart cities movement" multipart series, which provides a look into the past, present and future of the space.

Hindsight is 20/20. When asked how the smart cities movement has changed in the past five years, many city leaders describe how an early exuberance for the potential of new smart city technologies may have distracted them from their primary concern: the residents, their perspectives and their needs.

Five years ago, the smart cities movement was not focused on people, said Portland, Oregon, Smart City PDX Manager, Kevin Martin, in response to several questions from a recent Smart Cities Dive survey of the smart cities movement over the past five years. It was focused on technology that was oversold and that communities weren’t asking for, he said.

That technology-first approach "largely failed" because cities were not trusted stewards of data and technology, especially in underserved communities, Martin said. Also, cities lacked policy processes and systems that support the increased use and collection of data that new technologies provided, he added.

Portland’s smart cities approach has changed since then, according to Martin. "It’s been a satisfying evolution, from focusing on technologies like autonomous vehicles to developing more comprehensive, just approaches to becoming a digital city, in partnership with Portland communities," he said.

Local leaders from other major U.S. cities also said in the survey that they have shifted the focus of their smart city initiatives over the past five years from implementing the newest technologies to prioritizing the needs of their community and its residents. Some of those new priorities include finding smarter ways — including with new technologies — to meet those needs while safeguarding residents’ privacy. Sparking a lot of that change was the COVID-19 pandemic, which surfaced inequities, especially around digital access, and highlighted the need for governments to transform.

The shift away from the 'tech arms race'

The U.S. smart cities movement to date has been marked by high-profile projects that haven’t always come to fruition, including Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto development and Replica’s work in Portland, Oregon. Other major technology players have also apparently lost some steam: Early smart cities enthusiast and tech giant Cisco announced at the end of last year that it was folding one of its main smart cities software platforms.

In recent years, the sense of what innovation looks like has evolved, noted Jen Sanders, executive director of the North Texas Innovation Alliance, which is also part of the larger National Smart Coalitions Partnership.

"The movement and coined term of 'smart cities' was very focused on the big audacious vision," and the way people described that vision, it "often came in the form of things like self-driving and self-flying cars and other flashy representations," she wrote in an email interview.

Even those who saw value in such efforts are realizing now where they may have fallen short.

Five years ago, the focus on new technology generated new data streams that helped inform various problems cities were facing, but it was difficult to justify the technology’s cost, said Linda Gerull, executive director of San Francisco’s technology department and the city’s chief information officer. It was not used in a way that delivered new service, she said.

"While these technologies were exciting, there was a hollowness to the topic because [they] did not completely address the challenges and needs of residents," said Gerull.

Vendors drove the "first wave" of the smart cities movement, selling new hardware and software that they said would make cities smarter, said Debra Lam, managing director of Georgia Tech’s Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation initiative. It created an unnecessary "tech arms race," she said.

When pursuing these technologies, many cities were not starting with a problem first, said Lam. "They were kind of thinking, here’s the solution, and trying to figure out how this would fit in the city, versus starting with the problem and thinking about what the most appropriate technologies would be in their wider toolkit," said Lam.

Cities are now finally starting to select interventions and projects from a menu of available technologies that are based on local conditions and concerns, said Jennifer Clark, professor and head of Ohio State University’s city and regional planning section within its College of Engineering. As that thinking has shifted, cities have boosted their in-house smart city expertise, allowing local leaders to focus more on using the technology to address the needs of the city and its residents, said Lam.

Smart city evolution: How cities have stepped back from a 'tech arms race'

Smart city companies, Clark added, are also recognizing the complexity of the smart cities market and the realities of building and managing public-private partnerships.

On the more everyday scale of city operations, technology innovations have yet to meaningfully address certain city challenges, including illegal dumping, neighborhood blight and flood monitoring, according to Houston Mayor’s Office of Innovation Director Jesse Bounds.

And if smart city innovations require residents to interact with government via technology, today’s greater awareness of the depth of the digital divide indicates the progress cities still need to make on that front. It’s "difficult to talk about smart cities" when many residents don’t even have access or the ability to use a computer or the internet, Bounds said in response to the survey.

"There are lots of novel solutions that would work in an ideal lab-type environment, but nothing feasible at scale," he said.

Refocusing on 'unsexy' technologies and smaller goals

Today, the "digital cities" concept is now widely used to describe modernizing and transforming city services and systems, providing better accessibility to residents, and viewing service from an equity perspective, San Francisco’s Gerull said. It also places cybersecurity and data privacy as its cornerstones.

The core elements of a smart city, Sanders with the North Texas Innovation Alliance said, are rarely visible to the average person walking down the street. However, she said, people can experience the impacts of those investments in their daily lives, such as shortened commute times, faster 911 responses or lower incidence of asthma.

"This is why starting with the simple and, in many cases, the 'unsexy' technologies is what creates the building blocks toward full value," she said. "With the anchor infrastructure, governance and functionality covered, the public sector can get to a risk/innovation balance of 'pragmatically flashy'."

Karen Lightman, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, noted that some of the most transformational changes cities can make today stem from simply breaking down silos of information, often stored in archaic ways, and making data open and accessible.

Some cities are communicating their more modest goals and efforts as well as the resident-first approach they are taking. Lightman pointed to the city of Boston’s Smart City Playbook as a leading example of how a city has strived to define and communicate how it will interact with vendors and potential technologies.

Kris Carter, co-chair of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, elaborated on that approach. During the past five years, the city has "reframed innovation as care," he said in his survey response. Boston’s smart city efforts are "not about ‘moving fast and breaking things' but rather as an exercise in care — caring for, caring with, caring about," Carter said. He also said the city has moved to "not worship efficiency because a city is not a stream of data; it’s people, and sometimes the social fabric of a city is lost with a singular focus on process improvement."

The city of Orlando has also reoriented its approach. In 2019, it started developing its first smart city master plan, which it has since reframed as plans for a "Future-Ready City." The city is now in the process of implementing short-term strategies the plan outlines related to better defining the digital divide, partnering with the entrepreneur community, testing out food recovery logistics platforms, and other efforts, said Future-Ready Director Michael Hess in response to the survey.

Once led by vendors and their priorities, smart cities are now defined by city governments and their priorities, said David Edinger, Denver’s chief information officer.

Denver now is focusing on "less than a handful" of smart initiatives to avoid spreading its resources too thinly, said Edinger in response to the survey question. This includes an initiative that aims to improve air quality near schools and a data hub project that Edinger considers "the backbone of future efforts."

Washington, D.C. also shifted its smart city focus in recent years from technology to how it trains and prepares its employees, residents and businesses so they can all have a fair shot in the digital age, the city’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer said in a statement in response to the survey.

The smart cities concept has become more holistic, according to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, moving beyond the implementation of technology to encompass meaningful community engagement, fluid communication capabilities, eliminating waste, sustainable environmental practices, the smarter use of resources and a better quality of life.

But the shift to that new approach has also been a challenge for many in the space.

"While the concept of smart cities is becoming more familiar, it remains a new concept for many practitioners," said Gallego in her survey response. "It is challenging to ensure practitioners understand the comprehensive approach and holistic thinking necessary to achieve a truly smart city."

A pandemic-driven reckoning

The COVID-19 pandemic shattered the normalcy of city life, closing stores and restaurants, emptying out offices and commuter trains, and sending hordes of delivery drivers dashing through the streets. It forced cities to reassess their priorities and challenged city leaders to become more inclusive in their planning.

Some shortcomings became apparent when cities turned to technology for their COVID response. Dallas quickly learned it had a language problem, for example. "While translation services have been made available for some resident-facing city services, the pandemic and the shift to more prevalent use of digital communication led to an increased need for a wider variety of language access," said Amanda Nabours, IT architect for the city of Dallas, in response to the survey. The city subsequently created a map that details the most commonly spoken languages in each ZIP code, enabling Dallas to expand the availability of translation services and materials.

The pandemic also laid bare the limitations of technology in underserved communities.The chief innovation officer for San Antonio, Brian Dillard, said in response to the survey question that it "created more urgency around issues like the digital divide, data governance, digital infrastructure and community co-creation."

That was echoed by Jeanne Holm, deputy mayor of budget and innovation for the city of Los Angeles. "The pandemic changed the way Los Angeles provisioned its services and heightened its focus towards equity, especially surrounding issues of internet access and connectivity and digital literacy," she replied to the survey.

"What COVID did around internet access is that it made the inequities impossible not to see," said LaVonna Lewis, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. Schoolchildren — suddenly forced to attend classes online — may not have had internet access at home, or they had service that couldn’t support siblings and working parents all attempting to be online at the same time.

Some cities were hit hard by the downturn in tax and other revenues as businesses shut down, tourism all but stopped and conventions were called off. "The federal intervention very much helped the cities, but it's harder when your tax base is not strong to begin with," said David Sloane, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis within the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Finding funds for smart city projects became a "limitation" as cities imposed drastic budget cuts, said Philadelphia Smart City Director Emily Yates in response to the survey.

Detroit Chief Information Officer Art Thompson also said in his survey response that "financial challenges will continue to be challenging as we look to provide more information."

Aiming for inclusive processes, equitable outcomes

Like other parts of the tech sector, the smart cities movement is "maturing," Ohio State University’s Clark said. The shift, she said, is partially due to pushback from citizens’ groups against specific interventions, like data-gathering smart streetlights, and large-scale integrated smart development projects like the discontinued Sidewalk Labs initiative in Toronto.

"Today, community engagement and trust are essential to setting smart cities priorities when adopting tools and processes designed for communities," Clark said.

One issue with this "techlash" is that it has spurred views of technology that are "very extreme one way or the other," said Lightman. "What I worry about is this idea that all facial recognition is bad. And it's this very black and white thinking," she said.

On the connected and autonomous vehicle front, for example, regulatory changes and “the heavy lift of consensus-building” have slowed progress, noted Tampa, Florida, Smart Mobility Manager Brandon Campbell in response to the survey. “We’re still seeing advances, but five years ago, the industry may have had overly optimistic aspirations for the timeline of the technology’s maturation,” he said.

Portland is now also focused on “rebuilding trust” and applying basic justice principles to its smart city work, said Martin. It is developing new policies with various underrepresented communities that provide a foundation for its use of its data and technology, such as policies that ensure surveillance technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence do not harm civil rights and liberties, he said.

"We think that [the process of rebuilding trust] starts with community engagement, policy development, and new systems to govern data and technology,” said Martin. “Digital justice demands more transparency, accountability, and access to resources, literacy, information and decision-making in technology and information."

Change is coming also as a result of the pandemic. Previously, said LA’s Holm, the city’s "smart city focus was more towards technologies versus who can access the technologies and understand how to use [them]."

In Philadelphia, where a quarter of the population is at or below the federal poverty level, "Equity and inclusion are critical to all SmartCityPHL pilots and projects," according to Yates.

But USC’s Lewis cautioned that what planners may want might not be what city residents want or see value in. "If they're not the things that they want, or they're not educated on how [initiatives] may be responsive to some of the things that they want, then there's a disconnect, and we've got to deal with that disconnect," she said.

San Antonio’s Dillard concurred. "The pandemic has made smart city approaches that center on people’s needs even more urgent."

Cailin Crowe contributed reporting to this story.