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Can SMART Solutions Create Better Places?

The title for this blog post is more than just the title of a blog post. It’s a question my Cisco colleagues and I have been pondering for quite some time. And, it’s the title assigned to a panel on which I recently participated, debating skeptics who asked some good (and probing) questions. The panel was part of the American Planning Association’s 2012 National Planning Conference, which attracted thousands of attendees. As the world’s largest planning event, the conference brings together urban planners and city leaders from around the world.

In describing the panel, “Can SMART Solutions Create Better Places?” the American Planning Association published the following: “Today’s financial realities demand the wise use of limited resources. Learn how advancements in technology are helping to create a wealth of data that can be used to inform policy development and planning, as well as guide infrastructure investment decisions across city departments. Explore challenges in applying technologies including access, privacy, equity and cost during this lively panel discussion.”

Four very smart people joined me on the panel, offering a diverse range of deep experience and insight: Andrea Sweigart, with the Virginia/Washington, DC office of Aecom, a Cisco partner which is one of the world’s largest AEC companies; Harriet Tregoning, Director of the Washington, DC government’s Office of Planning; Michael L. Marrella, Director, Waterfront and Open Space Planning -- NYC Department of City Planning; and Milind Naphade, IBM Research Staff Member. Together, we debated how smart solutions can be translated to suburbia and rural areas; the advantages of open data and how open data can enhance the role of the community planner; whether or not smart cities will inspire a new kind of citizenship; and how to “upscale” smart technology to translate into cost savings for a community.

I honed in on work-life innovation – one of the event’s main threads – in the context of Washington, DC’s shifting fortunes. The implications for city planning are noteworthy; therein lies a considerable opportunity to not only change the way people go to work, but to also change their entire working pattern. This thinking is outlined in a number of key papers prepared by IBSG, such as “The Future of Distributed and Networked Work.”

Planners in attendance were particularly interested in answering practical questions, such as, “how can this work in our city?” Consequently, some discussion centered on the specific ‘enabling technologies,’ as it’s quite clear that the cities considered the most successful are those using intelligent networking capabilities to weave together people, services, community assets, and information into a single pervasive solution. These tech-centric initiatives are helping to transform physical communities into connected communities.

Planners are hungry to move from idea to execution. That means taking advantage of solutions that are built on the network as an open, integrated platform and that use a broad ecosystem of partners and employ innovative business models.

The best solutions now being deployed are the ones that enable citizens, mayors, developers, urban planners, property managers, and other community stakeholders to address the challenges of urbanization, while simultaneously changing how communities are designed, built, managed, and renewed.

For example, cities and service providers are working hard (and sometimes working together) to provide citywide network access and services in a wide variety of settings. The benefits to this particular partnership are significant, a few examples include:

  • Indoor and outdoor network access, either wired or wireless, can increase municipal workers’ productivity, strengthen public safety, and enhance community quality of life. But cities typically have neither the resources nor the ambition to become service providers.
  • Service providers, seeking to offload their overburdened third and fourth- generation (3G and 4G) networks, deploy Wi-Fi access points on lampposts and other city property, paying the city a fee for each location.
  • The city creates public-private partnerships (PPPs) with these service providers, retaining control of policy but offloading the burden of managing complex networks.
  • Mobile personnel workers can access people and devices from convenient locations in the city, reducing round trips to the office.

Mobile workers and mobile citizens all need mobile apps that are useful because they connect the user so efficiently and effectively to the network.

The coolest apps, which have certainly become the most attractive eye-candy, have to perform well within the network, and they have the user to connect to others through the network. But the network is largely invisible to the end-user, while the newest apps help to makethe power of the network highly visible. Big investments have been focused on upgrading both wired networks and wireless networks. And more investments will continue to be made in order to keep the networks up-to-date. The challenge ahead – to  create added value by seamlessly linking the user to the network of city systems and services – is  becoming increasingly clear.

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