Cities aren’t smart

Cities aren’t smart

NY High Line - Sept 2011 - 09

Cities aren’t smart, people are.

I think this is a simple point, but important to remember amidst all the Smart City hype.

Smart cities are cities where people produce and use information to make cities more livable, economically successful, socially equitable, sustainable and fun.

And, who are these people producing and using information?

This is key: they are both the traditional city leaders and everyone else.

Today, city administrations have unprecedented access to data that enables them to both improve city services and make them more efficient. An often overlooked source of this data are city residents and visitors. Many cities do not use modern IT tools to collect, analyze and use input from the public. This is a shame because people could provide very high quality information for improving the way cities operate.

In some cases city administrations are not interested in public opinion, but in many cases good IT tools to help the public communicate information to cities and for cities to automatically analyze this information have not been developed. Often cities cannot even imagine that public involvement could be done more efficiently using new media and information technology tools.

What are these tools? One important set of tools are educational media since city planning and administration are complicated. Cities can get better information and ideas if the public knows something about how the city works before providing input. (This is the main idea behind my GreenCityStreets project: teach people about public transport with the BusMeister game and provide a social network for them to submit ideas to the city government.)

Another set of tools are programs to analyze and organize the data that comes in to cities through new media channels. This means designing the public input channels so that the information can be easily summarized and described. These tools could also help improve the existing public input process (e.g. public transport complaint telephone operators). The growing use of on-line 311 systems in the USA is a good example.

No doubt there are great challenges ahead as city governments involve the public more fully in the city planning and administrative process, but change is coming. New mobile communications and information technologies are making it just a question of time. Truly smart cities will embrace this change and develop the tools needed to fully engage the public in making their cities better.

What do you think?
NY High Line - Sept 2011 - 09

PICNIC 2011 in Amsterdam

Schiphol Airport Amsterdam

Schiphol Airport Amsterdam

In September I travelled to Amsterdam for the PICNIC 2011 Festival. The event is like a big fair and this year it was held at the old shipbuilding area called NDSM Wharf, a ten-minute ferry ride from Amsterdam’s Central Railway Station. A variety of different structures including temporary buildings, old containers, tents, an old ferry boat, were used for the sessions and presentations.

PICNIC was a great opportunity to meet people thinking about the intersection between design, city planning, internet, history, art … lots of energy and very creative ideas. Among my favorite presentations were those by Adam Greenfield, Ben Hammersley, and Charles Landry (links are to videos of the presentations).

On Friday I attended a session sponsored by the European Creative Business Network. We split up into teams and developed ideas for venture capital funding. Our team of four developed the concept for an on-line game that would be played via mobile devices … and we won the first prize: 5,000 Euro to develop the idea in more detail! We’re working on it.

The photo below is of us taking the ferry back to Central Station after dinner one night, note that it’s a roll-on/roll-off ferry for bicycles and mopeds … extremely convenient and easy to use.

I’m already looking forward to PICNIC 2012! All my PICNIC 2011 Festival photos (many of which are of the Amsterdam Harbour) on flickr.

Web 2.0 for citizen involvement

Web 2.0 for citizen involvement

Schedule information screens on Zurich public transport vehicles, from my flickr photos.

The Infrastructuralist just had an interesting article about IBM’s Smart Cities program and some work they are doing in Viet Nam. I added a comment suggesting that a good solution for many urban problems is the use of Web 2.0 techniques to involve the public in planning and operating urban services. Read the article and my comment here (The Infrastructuralist is no longer available).

ITS Challenge – Final Results

ITS Challenge – Final Results

Stockholm Central Railway Station - 5

I recently participated in the ITS Challenge, a contest to identify intelligent transport system (ITS) ideas for helping reduce congestion. My proposal, Bus Meister, was not selected as one of the nine finalists. I blogged previously on my assessment of the nine ITS Challenge finalists.

Yesterday the results were announced in Stockholm (hence the photo above) and the solutions I liked best did not win. The best I did was a 3rd place for iCone, a very nice application for helping provide ITS in construction areas and for special events (it got 7% of the votes).

My favourite application in the contest was skymeter, a proven system for efficient roadway user charging. It only received 5% of the vote. As we move to electric vehicles and more fuel efficient vehicles road user charging systems will be needed to replace the gas tax, and more relevant to the contest’s goal of reducing congestion: using road pricing creatively can make a huge impact on congestion.

The winning application was iCarpool.com with 54% of the votes. iCarpool is doing very nice work, but their system did not seem to be anything special. I thought the other carpool application in the contest, Avego (5% of votes), was a bit more innovative and better (check out the Avego YouTube video description).

The second place application, with 18% of the votes, was fuelclinic.com, an application that helps users use less fuel and drive more responsibly. Again, not bad, but not really earth shaking.

The VenCorps Blog summarises the results and refers to a full press release with more details.

I guess I have to wonder about the process. First it was a little unclear how the top nine applications were chosen. As I mentioned in my earlier posting, most of them did not seem particularly innovative. Second, it seems odd that the winner would get so large a percentage of the votes, especially a relatively plain vanilla (for people working in the transport planning field) application (IMHO). As I said, nice application, but …

Perhaps the contest sponsors were over represented in the voting? While anyone could vote, you needed to sign-up on the VenCorps website, a somewhat involved process. In many ways I think that the main sponsors (IBM, ITS America) are relatively conservative organisations and the results probably reflect this bias. Who knows?

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