City 2.0

Technologies such as WiMax, smart grids and social networks will transform tomorrow's urban centers.

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City-centric Social Networking

We're all familiar with using social networks to catch up with friends and family or even to find a job, but wouldn't it be nice if your city had a social network where you could keep abreast of local developments and weigh in on neighborhood issues?

The city of Dublin, Ohio, uses Novell Inc.'s Teaming software to run a portal where government officials can publish blogs, chat via instant messaging and share documents. In the next few months, the city plans to make the private network available to all citizens. In the future, a social network like that could allow residents to submit ideas for city improvements, chat with politicians and blog about their neighborhoods over a secure, city-centric portal.

San Jose, Calif., is already one of the most high-tech cities in the U.S. Over the next few years, it will create a social network on Wikiplanning.org -- an online site for civic engagement -- that will help citizens learn about the city, chat using instant messaging tools, complete surveys and download city podcasts.

"Frequently, only small groups of residents come to public meetings, and in the case of a multiple-meeting project, it's largely the same group of citizens who continue to participate," says Kim Walesh, San Jose's chief strategist. "Participation by small groups may not offer a good representation of the community as a whole. An advantage of Wikiplanning is that activities can be done day or night at the user's convenience, allowing for far greater participation."

WiMax and Citywide Wireless

The concept of readily available wireless service has been around the block a few times, so to speak. Cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago have tried to provide Wi-Fi access, without much success. Minneapolis is one of the few large cities that has deployed Wi-Fi successfully.

In Portland, Ore., a Wi-Fi network didn't fare so well, but a WiMax project seems to be off to a stronger start.

WiMax, widely seen as the next generation of mobile data access after Wi-Fi, stalled over the past few years because of the complexity of the technology, changes in partnerships and reluctance on the part of city officials to adopt an emerging technology. Even so, WiMax promises more ubiquitous access than Wi-Fi, because Wi-Fi hot spots require users to seek them out whereas WiMax is available throughout a given area. WiMax requires fewer base stations and has a lower infrastructure cost, and it uses licensed spectrum that does not interfere with other wireless LANs.

Tim Sweeney, a product manager at Intel Corp., says the prospects of WiMax in cities are strong because it can provide greater bandwidth for city services.

"Wi-Fi was never intended to support a wide area; it is really for inside buildings," Sweeney says. His vision of future municipal WiMax deployments includes cars using the technology to report their fuel tank levels, gas stations bidding on the cost of fuel, and electric cars communicating with smart grids about their energy use -- perhaps to determine whether alternative routes would save power.

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