Cities in the Age of Urban Tech
Hundreds of government officials, leaders of both business and academia, and young entrepreneurs joined the New Cities Foundation 2016 Summit in Montreal last week. Montreal, proven to be an ideal host for the summit, as only one week earlier it earned the “Intelligent Community of the Year” designation, awarded by the Intelligent Communities Forum to the city that best demonstrates a culture of urban innovation that advances the community to benefit its residents and local businesses.
This culture of innovation was the backdrop and set the tone of the two-day New Cities Summit—an event proudly sponsored by Cisco and its Smart+Connected Communities team. The summit explored the intersection of people and technologies, where we take opportunities to create better places to live, work, learn and play, ultimately reshaping the urban landscape. Although the tech industry is a driving force of so-called smart cities, the wonderful discussions throughout the week unequivocally centered on the notion that it cannot just be the introduction or evolution of technology that makes a city smart.
This seems obvious—although surely we in the tech world still are often caught pushing others and ourselves toward a technology-focused definition of what a smart city means. But as discussed at length during the show and beyond, we must give up on positioning technology for the sake of technology. Like myself, Anil Menon also freely admits that technology is an enabler that leads to innovative and unprecedented outcomes. Giving city leaders more tools to run productive operations and reduce capital cost, to offer higher quality services and experiences to its constituents and local business, and allow municipalities to differentiate themselves to compete for the best workforce talent and key investment opportunities.
In the face of growing political, environmental, and economic challenges, cities cling to what inspires their unique identities. Yet in our increasingly complex world of endless digital connections, cities also seek to redefine themselves. Those defined as a smart city understand that we’re at a key phase of urban evolution that requiring that city leaders take advantage of digital capabilities and innovative culture shifts to address rising challenges and opportunities alike. Still, we cannot forget the human element. The discourse at New Cities Summit referred to this as cities that thrive with Urban Tech. People first, technology later; yet, an unyielding and relentless focus on creating efficiency, opportunity, value, and new experiences.
During the summit, I had the pleasure to participate in a panel discussion with some amazing thought leaders and visionaries: the CTO of the City of Washington DC and the Chief Innovation Officer for San Francisco Transit Authority. The topic of our debate was the role of open data in the public domain. We touched on the technical requirements and challenges of sharing and securing data sets—agreeing that where there is a will, there is a way, and technology hurdles can be overcome.
The barrier I’d like to address is a question of culture. Open data requires open government, a willingness to expose data sets and invite the public to actively participate in conversation for how to put this data to good use. Governments and city leaders cannot be afraid of over-exposure, it’s ultimately inevitable for processes to be inefficient and become obsolete. It takes courage to invite the public into the conversation and collectively look for ways to create new value and opportunities for your community. The question for public leaders, however, remains. How much data do I expose and what is it that I want to achieve? One must then justify the cost of cleaning (not necessarily surprising, but not all data is valuable data), preparing, curating, and presenting data. And address where the data might securely reside. I do submit that it’s more common to not know the real value of open data until collaborative exchanges take place (like organized hackathons and partnership opportunities with universities) and out-of-the-box thinking becomes the new norm. And as we on the panel agreed, the answers to these poignant questions will remain open-ended for the foreseeable future.
The New Cities Foundation put forth an inspiring message during last week’s summit—If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. It cannot be denied that the application of innovative technologies is propelling our communities towards productivity, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity. But when cities work together with the private sector, entrepreneurs, academia, and the public at large, amazing things can happen and true innovation will take place.