Cities in which an electronic nervous system controls every drop of water, every kilowatt of electricity; cities in which in which citizens talk back to government on an array of platforms, in which residents can track the movement of trains, buses, and shared bikes and cars. These were themes of the Intelligent Cities Forum last week at the National Building Museum, cosponsored by Time, IBM, and the Rockefeller Foundation.* In fact many of these technologies are here, and undoubtedly many readers of this blog are already using them, although in a dispersed, piecemeal way. Innovative uses of new technology continue to appear. In the slums of Nairobi, technology maps the hidden, informal economy. In Dubuque, Iowa, water previously lost to leaky pipes is now captured, saving some 65 million gallons a year. In New York and Memphis, new analytics have reduced crime. In Stockholm, a congestion-charging system helps traffic flow smoothly. In Portland, the online-trip planner is the number one Google search in the metro area.
But what do these amount to? Are they part of a cohesive change in thinking? We discussed this at the lunch break; one iconoclast (I’d give him credit but I never learned his name) thought that the forum was recycling old ideas with shiny new rhetoric. Upon reflection, I had to agree, to an extent, that there doesn’t seem to be the kind of comprehensive paradigm shift that the rhetoric promised. However, the question remains whether the combination of ingredients, together with the dazzling speed and power of the latest technology, is, in fact leading to something new, something hard to perceive in the midst of it. The question (or one question) is, can enough quantitative changes lead to a qualitative change?
Indeed the forum had two separate—albeit related—themes: the intelligent city and the smart growth city. The smart growth city begins with an attack on Robert Moses, the architect of roads over transit, of huge buildings and planned communities in New York City in the first part of the twentieth century. Opposed to him is Jane Jacobs, foremother of smart growth, proponent of organic, diverse communities, of walkable neighborhoods as the heart of any vibrant city. Indeed, such concepts held cities together far before there was any such thing as information technology. The forum discussed copiously such smart growth ideas as transit accessibility and job- and living-space balance. What ties them to the intelligent, information-technology-driven, city is the ability to make decisions based on instant access to layers of data in accessible form. For instance, in planning a road, we can now integrate very specific information about likely pedestrian paths, interaction with vehicles, and bus-station access, along with data about the flow of automobile traffic.
So the data are there, but will this information be connected to smart growth principles? Some of the participants, who had long been involved in transit and land-use policy, were skeptical regarding implementation. For instance, as jobs migrate out to the suburbs, it becomes harder for low-income workers to access them, even with better transit availability. In my own experience as a transit activist, I’ve seen that decisions are made largely by ideology—what’s the accepted way of doing business—and by access—what parties and interests have influence. Although versions of the smart growth paradigm have been around, at least in rhetorical form, for some fifty years (having acquired the name “smart growth” in the late 1990s), often the automobile paradigm has remained dominant, perhaps with token transit or walkability aspects thrown in. The IT revolution, which is affecting all of our lives, then, offers tremendous new opportunities for implementing sustainable cities, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be applied. As one participant put it, having data should not be mistaken for taking action. [i.e., see SSPP Featured Dataset: Congestion Data for U.S. Urban Areas].
One way to encourage action outside the limited parameters of power is through the democratization of decision making. To an extent, this has been around since the 1970s, when public hearings were instituted as an antidote to centralized decision making. Yet, too often, these public hearings are set up to approve decisions already made behind the scenes. And too often the same small group of people, representing different interest groups, show up again and again at the meetings, while the mass of citizens remains too busy, intimidated, disinclined, or unaware to attend. And here is where the new technology, once again, is useful. Public comments increasingly appear online, greatly opening up the discussion. Of course, this only works for those committed enough to find the online-discussion sites, and for those with Internet access. And, again, it depends on the good will of those who filter the comments taking them seriously.
So will the intelligent cities of the future actually be doing what the forum says? Will they integrate information with tremendous speed and efficiency to improve planning; create walkable, transit-friendly environments; move people closer to work; greatly reduce energy and water usage; fight crime; improve economic performance; and, overall, move us to the sustainable cities we need? The answer is in many ways yes; it’s already happening, and best practices are spreading quickly. In the Washington, DC area, for instance, a new bike-sharing system relies on computer technology to track bike availability, one of many area-wide innovations. Yet a roads-first mentality continues to dominate much planning, while individual jurisdictions fight for their pieces of the economic pie, giving little thought to regional balance. Information technology is, in fact, leading to qualitative lifestyle change; however, if we could get beyond business-as-usual thinking, the possibilities would be multiplied.
*Due to the panel nature of the forum and the rapid back-and-forth between speakers, it’s not possible to give credit to the individuals who made the various points discussed here.