Thinking About Smart Cities

Source: BU Today on November 10, 2016 | Sara Rimer

While proponents of smart cities differ about the details of what exactly makes a smart city smart, they all agree on one thing: life is better in a smart city. It’s safer, greener, less congested, cleaner, and more cost- and energy-efficient. From the streets to municipal services, it is easier to navigate. It’s about collecting and acting upon the data that is available from an ever-increasing number of sources—sensors in roads, mobile phones, commercial transactions, census and other public records, even personal fitness trackers.

In a smart city, people don’t spend half their lives sitting in traffic. That’s because sensors embedded in roads, traffic lights, and tollbooths collect data and share it through wireless technology to keep vehicles moving (while reducing carbon emissions). City hall quickly learns about potholes, because the drivers hitting them report their location on their smartphones.

If Boston were a smart city, the traffic lights on Commonwealth Avenue would know that BU students cross the street between classes—and would also know where they cross—and the lights would flash red accordingly. During snowstorms, student data could tell the snowplows when and where to start plowing.

These are a few of the things that Azer Bestavros, director of BU’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, and a group of other experts talked about during a panel discussion on smart cities hosted by Boston University and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) at its offices in Washington October 27.

“A smart city has to be programmable,” said Bestavros, a College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) professor of computer science. “Cities are not smart. It’s people that are smart. People can put their smarts into programs and as a result, cities can be adaptable, customizable, nimble, personable.”

One major theme of the discussion was the need for smart infrastructure to address problems in America’s cities related to congestion, grid security, and aging roads, bridges, and water supply networks.

“At the federal level, in smart transportation, we invest on the order of what we could build 10 miles of road with—that’s how little we’re investing,” said Robert D. Atkinson, ITIF president, who introduced the panelists. “We’re spending massive amounts of money on dumb cities, or dumb things that have no intelligence to them, and really very little on making them smart. Luckily, that’s beginning to change both here and around the world, but we need to accelerate that change, and that’s part of what this conversation is about.” Atkinson noted that ITIF has been working closely with the Obama administration on its National Smart Cities Initiative, launched in September 2015. He held up BU, and Boston, as examples of places that are working on model smart city efforts.

The other panelists were Daniel Castro, ITIF vice president, Lauren Lockwood, chief digital officer for the city of Boston, and Elizabeth Grossman, director of civic projects in Microsoft’s Technology and Civic Engagement group.

“Right now with smart cities, there are two paths forward,” Castro said. “They can choose to go down this route and invest heavily in digital or they can choose not to.” What will happen to cities that don’t invest? Castro pointed to the example of the past, when “we saw cities and towns that chose not to be on the railroad line, or to get bypassed by the interstate, not thrive after a while.”

Grossman, who works with cities across the country on various smart initiatives, told the group that “there is a complex interplay between information technology, infrastructure, and humans, with their messy views and values.” Grossman and the other panelists emphasized that smart cities can’t focus just on software programs, data collection, and the latest technologies. They have to be about people—all kinds of people.