Smart cities are boring. Give us responsive cities.

Comment

Image Credits: Prasit photo

Colin O’Donnell

Contributor

Colin O’Donnell is the chief innovation officer of Intersection.

More posts from Colin O’Donnell

As an urban technologist, I’m often asked to give an example of a compelling smart city application that real people are using. But to be honest, there really isn’t too much to point to – yet. Cities may be getting smarter, but they haven’t noticeably changed from a user perspective.

It seems like most of the digital advances in cities have been invisible and focused on city operations, rather than on the parts of the city that people can see, touch, and use. Sure, it’s important that city managers can better identify water leaks, or more accurately predict the likelihood of a building failing an inspection, but there isn’t a direct, personal, benefit to city dwellers. So it’s understandable that some people feel like there hasn’t been much progress.

The reason that we, as city dwellers, haven’t been wowed by transformative Smart City applications is that Smart Cities are boring. It’s the same reason people’s faces don’t light up at the thought of a data warehouse (ok, settle down, nerds). Smart Cities are just a means to an end; a step along the road to truly digital cities.

In order to evolve into a city that fully realizes the potential of the internet, delivering real, tangible benefits to its inhabitants, cities will go through three phases: 1) They first need to collect data about their environment, 2) They need to process that data, and finally, 3) They need to take corresponding real-time action. My shorthand is: See, Think, Do.

See – The Instrumented City

For the last couple decades, we’ve been living in an Instrumented City. Sensors upon sensors upon sensors – everything’s got a sensor, from the front door to your office to the bikeshare dock, to the traffic light on the corner. Everything is being quantified, and this is the foundation of any future city developments. In order to change something, you need to first be able to measure it.<

Think – The Smart City

So what do we do with this data? This is where companies like IBM, GE, and AT&T have been focusing their efforts over the past few years. In the Smart City, insights are derived from the data generated in the Instrumented City. This is done using data platforms, algorithms, and data science, and allows us to not only understand what we measured, but also why it matters.

We can start building correlations and causations, creating models to predict and test human behavior, and gaining insights into why things happened and how change might be affected. AI will start to play a larger role in analyzing massive amount of data and developing understanding of what’s happening in the city. But it’s all fairly “back-office” at this point. Think of it as the internet before everyone had email, or web 1.0 sites. Yeah, it’s important and it’s changing how the world works, but why should I care? What can I do?

Do – The Responsive City

Now, this is where things get interesting, when things start to actually happen, and where people will notice and feel the difference. It’s the stage with the most opportunity for development and new products. The Responsive City is one that, as the name suggests, responds to the needs, wants, and desires of its citizens; whether they’re workers, residents, or visitors. All this is done in real time, and it’s active and rich with applications.

Building upon the data generated in the Instrumented City and the insights developed in the Smart City, The Responsive City is like an app layer on top of hardware, data, and base services.

In cities, these apps will be focused on manipulating infrastructure or influencing behavior to dynamically optimize the city for any number of outcomes; safety, convenience, efficiency – but also discovery, joy, community. All of this helps support what makes cities great in the first place – engaged citizens of diverse backgrounds sharing a common space in time.

This all relies on digital, controllable, infrastructure, and that’s coming quickly. Uber and Lyft are examples of connected cars that preposition themselves based on anticipated transportation needs.

Digital screens and dynamic street furniture are early examples of responsive infrastructure as well – with the potential to act like an Augmented Reality layer for the city, these products superimpose real-time information over the streetscape to inform or influence the population, and to help them in any number of ways; citizens can better move through the city, explore all that the city has to offer, and be alerted to emergencies in real time, to take just a few examples.

Cities are ready for this transformation. With digital infrastructure, automation, and machine learning comes the ability to predictively respond to demands and optimize outcomes for millions of people at once.

Today, we have a massive opportunity for city managers, social activists, and entrepreneurs to create new economic opportunities, reshape behaviors, and repurpose our resources to truly redefine the modern city. The infrastructure needed for this revolution is beginning to fall into place, but how do cities ultimately arrive at this final stage of responsiveness?

To pave the way for effective responsive cities, cities need to:

Partner on Resources, Access, and Outcomes

We need to toss out our preconceived notions of what’s possible in cities and start with the desired outcomes. City managers need to identify untapped resources or infrastructure in need of reinvention and then make it easy to partner and collaborate with the private sector. Public-private partnerships ought to be aligned on mutually beneficial outcomes, like universal access to resources for people of all abilities, and not fixate on a particular solution, or prescribed procurements.

Understand Groups of People and Influencing Their Behaviors

A responsive city is reflective of the humans in it. The internet has shown us a glimpse of what’s possible with personalization – recommending videos or products or friends to you. A single person. But city experiences are inherently one-to-many. 50 people look up at a sign, and they experience it together, with 50 different backgrounds and maybe as many individual objectives. This opens up an interesting field of study: understanding groups of people and how they respond to real-time changes in their environment.

Whether it’s something like dynamic road closures for on-demand pedestrian plazas, or directing people with different mobility needs to the fastest route for an event, or helping them discover a new business that just opened; balancing people’s needs with the city’s -in real time- will be an exciting new area for exploration, blending Urban Planning with User Experience Design and Behavioral Science.

Make it Real-Time

Becoming a responsive city isn’t a static objective, it’s a constantly moving target. We need to think past fixed, single-purpose infrastructure and focus on dynamic, real-time digital infrastructure that can change as people and cities change. The focus should be not only staying relevant over years as cities change on the macro scale, but staying relevant from moment to moment, from the morning commute to lunch.

Cloud network servers concepts

 

The internet has changed everything we do – how we live, work, and play, all through access to information, and communication with each other. But it hasn’t always lived up to its transformative potential. We’ve seen it create isolation and siloed groups that breed intolerance.

And cities can be stale and inflexible – designed by people who died long before today’s inhabitants were even born, and where change is measured in decade planning exercises. Cities are rarely representative of the actual people using, working, and living in them.

But now, as the internet makes its way into cities, we have an opportunity to make the internet more human, and cities more dynamic.

We can build true community experiences where people of different cultures and backgrounds and abilities share digital interactions with one another as well as their city. We have the ability to shape our environment and share information in real time to better connect people with each other, and with resources. We have an opportunity to build an inclusive digital urban experience, and that starts with a responsive city.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

19 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

20 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android