Opinion by Richard Adler

Cities get smarter

rio de janeiro operations center

The smart-city operations center of Rio de Janeiro

Credit: City of Rio de Janeiro

Cities can seem immortal, lasting for thousands of years. Imagine the possibilities when we make them smart.

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Cities are unique among man-made institutions in being essentially immortal. A number of cities in Northern Africa and Western Asia are least 5,000 years old, and Jericho, in the West Bank, is believed to have been continuously inhabited since 10,000 BC.

Their remarkable longevity was one of the characteristics of cities that attracted the interest of Geoffrey West, past president of the Santa Fe Institute and a theoretical physicist, who decided to turn his attention to studying living organisms to see if he could make biology less of a descriptive science and a more analytical science. After focusing on animals, seeking a correlation between their physical size and their life span, he began to explore the dynamics of human institutions such as corporations and cities. He quickly realized that while corporations have finite lifetimes (very few business enterprises survive for even 100 years), cities seemed to have the capacity to be nearly immortal.

Cities can be amazingly resilient: think, for example, about the cities in Europe and Japan that rebounded after they were virtually obliterated by bombing during World War II to become vibrant urban centers again. Unlike countries, whose borders are imaginary and subject to revision, cities are actual places with a physical structure that shapes the lives of their residents.

jericho Wikimedia Commons

The West Bank city of Jericho has been continuously occupied for thousands of years.

One reason for cities’ resilience is that they are highly efficient: West and his colleague Luis Bettencourt found that as cities grew larger, their performance increased on a per capita basis in terms of such diverse factors as energy use, income and patents produced (in technical terms, they scale “super-linearly”). Above all, cities are social networks: places where people connect with other people — both people like themselves and people who are quite different. As a result, cities serve as engines of innovation, places where creative people choose to live and work in order to collaborate with other creatives.

It is fortunate that cities have these positive characteristics. According to a recent report from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and more than two-thirds are expected to be urban dwellers by 2050.

Building the future in Rio

As efficient as cities are today, there is a movement under way to make them much more efficient. Companies like IBM, Cisco and Samsung have been actively promoting the concept of “smart cities” that use digital technologies to provide civic leaders with a better view of how their cities function and enable them to orchestrate their operations.

The archetype of these installations is the Rio Operations Center, a vast NASA-like control room built by IBM for Rio de Janeiro that collects data from sensors all over the city as well as live images from more than 800 cameras that are displayed on an enormous video wall. The center, which opened in 2010, is staffed 24 hours per day by 600 employees from 30 different agencies whose task is to monitor the city’s multiple systems — ranging from transportation, energy and communications to public safety, health and even recreation — and integrate the data with such things as weather forecasts to anticipate and respond to problems and emergencies in real time.

Cities already generate large amounts of data — and will generate far more in the near future. As the density of connected sensors continues to grow, many urban areas will produce more data than the Large Hadron Collider, the multibillion-dollar scientific instrument that is exploring the frontiers of knowledge in particle physics. Collecting massive amounts of civic data on this scale will require a robust wireless and wireline broadband network infrastructure. Big data requires big pipes, and continued investment in next-generation broadband networks will be needed to meet demands to transmit this bandwidth-intensive data.

The limits of control

While Rio de Janeiro demonstrates how digital technology can be used to improve city operations, barriers to more widespread adoption of that model here at home remain, including outdated communications policies and regulatory uncertainties that could slow investment in the necessary digital infrastructure. And as appealing as this vision of cybernetic control may be, it has limits. Anthony Townsend, a senior research scientist at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation and the author of the 2013 book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (just released in paperback), these mega-systems have three potential weaknesses: they can be buggy, brittle and bugged. First, large-scale computer systems often contain undetected flaws (bugs) that can cause unanticipated problems. For example, in 2006, a bug in the control software for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system caused a system-wide shutdown that recurred three times in a 24-hour period. Second, big systems that provide centralized control can be vulnerable to large-scale disruptions (brittle): the intentional destruction of a few pieces of key equipment at the FAA’s air traffic control center near Chicago last month by a disgruntled employee led to the cancellation of thousands of airline flights that rippled across the country for nearly a week. Finally, large systems are susceptible to being attacked (bugged) by unauthorized intruders, which has been graphically demonstrated in recent months by headline stories about massive data breaches at major retailers and banks by unknown intruders. And in the post-Snowden world, citizens’ concerns about the potential for sweeping government surveillance have increased markedly.

And, whether it is a good or a bad thing, tech vendors’ hopes of getting other cities to make big investments in building state-of-the-art municipal control centers like Rio’s were dealt a setback when the economic crises of the past decade slashed city revenues and depleted the funds they might have spent on new technologies.

Thinking smaller

However, there is another, very different pathway to making cities smarter that is based on the efforts of idealistic, mostly young, civic-minded hackers who are attempting to make government more responsive and to liberate government data that could increase the transparency of public agencies. Many of these digital activists share a belief that citizens empowered by technology can do for themselves much of what they now depend on government to do — and do it better and cheaper.

As Townsend observes, the activists envision “a smart city modeled not after a mainframe but the Web.” From their perspective, the big tech vendors fail to appreciate the human dimension that makes cities special. Rather than focusing on making a city’s infrastructure function more efficiently, they are more interested in using digital technology to connect a city’s residents together in order to share and collaborate with each other. With the democratization of technology, mobile devices (which already outnumber the total global population) will be a key platform for this kind of collaboration.

While these grassroots initiatives are appealing, they also have their limits. For now, many apps created by volunteers remain at the level of “proofs of concept” rather than being robust and truly useful. And small, targeted apps developed to serve the residents of one community may not scale to serve broader needs.

Making progress in the middle

Given the limits of both the top-down and bottom-up approaches, what is the most promising path to making cities smarter? Townsend is encouraged by the actions of a group of progressive mayors both in the U.S. and abroad who have taken responsibility for mobilizing technology for the public good in their communities. Mayors in cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco have appointed chief digital officers or chief innovation officers and encouraged them to work with residents to increase access to government data and help develop applications that use this data.

In Chicago, for example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has championed the creation of a comprehensive technology plan that proposes a series of initiatives that go well beyond using technology to make the city run more efficiently. When the plan was released in 2013, the mayor stated that its primary goals were “job creation and improving quality of life for residents.” Among the priorities identified in the plan are to use technology to improve government services and support civic innovation and to promote growth of the city’s tech sector. The plan also calls for increasing the availability of broadband for all businesses and residents, which it recognizes represents the key infrastructure for economic growth.

Other big cities — including San Francisco, New York, London, Dublin and Singapore — have developed their own technology plans. Although they all share a strong belief in the power of technology, each city has come up with a set of distinctive priorities and strategies that reflect its specific situation and challenges.

Another hopeful sign of progress is the expanding interest of foundations and researchers in exploring the “science of cities,” driven in large part by the explosive growth of civic data and the availability of analytical tools that can be used to understand how cities operate. The MacArthur Foundation has recently launched an initiative on Cities, Information, and Governance that has already made grants to support urban research programs at Harvard, New York University, the University of Chicago, the London School of Economics, the RAND Corporation and the Santa Fe Institute that will use big data in innovative ways. The foundation has also provided funding to NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress for a new journal, the Urban Data Review.

There are some 557,000 municipalities in the world, ranging in size from tiny villages to huge mega-cities. As more of them get engaged in finding ways to use intelligent broadband-driven digital technologies to improve the lives of their residents, we are witnessing the emergence an entire planet of civic laboratories where the future of cities will be invented.

Richard Adler is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has written widely about the future of broadband and its impact on fields such as education, healthcare, government and commerce.

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