Connected Insights Blog:

Connecting Information to Insight

The Smart City (and how to get it to notice you)

The one recurring topic at the Net Inclusion conference this year was smart cities. What are they? What defines one? How does one tap into the funding that is fast opening up around this buzzword concept? And is it worth paying attention to long-term, or just another developer phrase that will seem outdated and schlocky in five years?

The definition of a smart city is one of those things that starts out simple and gets quickly more complicated as everyone tried to give it their own spin. The simple part is the idea that a smart city is like a smart house. It uses a network of electronic sensors and data collection, known as the IoT or Internet of Things, to monitor its urban ecosystem. This includes all sorts of municipal services, like trash collection, water usage, and traffic lights. But another key component of the Smart City is that it is interactive, collecting data and feedback from its users to adapt and enhance services, and utilizing a kind of open source model which encourages problem-solving from the community. This last part is an important facet of the Smart City trend: businesses are key solution providers and drivers. Local governance becomes even more a partnership between private companies and municipal leaders than it was in the golden, pre-investigative internet days.

Professor William Mitchell from MIT once wrote that cities have all the sub-systems needed by all living organisms: structural skeletons, various layers of protective skins and artificial nervous systems. In this context, to create new intelligence in the cities, we need to combine software (our stored knowledge), digital telecommunications networks (the nerves), ubiquitously embedded intelligence (the brains), and sensors and identifiers (the five senses.)

Now there is no doubt that smart cities are a) necessary and b) inevitable. As urban populations grow, it gives local governments a unique opportunity to design the new systems which will literally manage their citizen’s lives, and to use these new technologies to make health, education, and transportation all more accessible. But you’ll notice the part missing from that metaphor up there is the heart. Cities may be inventing what is basically 2019’s parallel to modern sewage systems, but though the window dressing may be shiny, the hard truth is the reliance on private industry and experts to drive innovations means anyone working with underserved populations needs to be extra vigilant that their people are not being left behind. Digital equity among citizens becomes even more crucial when city services are most accessible through apps.

We talked last month about superconnectors, and how digital inclusion is a running thread that brings together a whole slew of different fields. Digital inclusion affects school programs, health organizations, adult literacy and job placement, even the accessibility of pre-natal care. It is a Root Issue, a basic lack of something that then affects a life in a thousand ways. In fact, it is not too much of an overstatement to compare lack of digital accessibility to lack of food or lack of safe housing. This is not 1997. It’s 2019, and people need reliable, fast internet in order to function without disadvantage in today’s world.

So picture the Smart City, an eager, growing monster constantly spreading out its limbs. The monster is huge, and all these start-ups and entrepreneurial masterminds are trying to train it in different directions, as they sell the city lampposts and sewer lines. Now how do you get the monster to notice you, in your tiny little neighborhood off the grid, with a bunch of people who don’t have the expendable income to be heard? You lure the monster in with its favorite treat: DATA.

Smart cities thrive on data. They exist because of it. Data is the language of a smart city. And if all the smaller organizations in a city are trying to be heard, they have to speak in Data.

The sci-fi stories of our childhood taught us that smart cities were coming, and we exist in a pivotal time right now as the very infrastructure of our future urban environments is being invented and formed. The possibilities right now for what we can turn cities into are wide open. But experience teaches us that if you just let the salesmen go off on their own vision, they are going to forget you. The time is now, at the onset, to bring all those superconnector organizations together to pool our data and our voices.

Which is why we’re so proud to roll out the Digital Inclusion Data Trust. Through a national data trust, we can identify needs, measure impacts, and see trends. If you are a digital inclusion practitioner and are willing to share your program data with us, we will align it to ours and use it in aggregate to help promote a national advocacy perspective. We will never share a specific individual’s data, and will never use personally identifying information in the sharing of stories or descriptions of participants.

In the end, the goal of a smart city is to give its citizens the best possible environment, a goal which is possible only if every citizen is considered. Connected Insights was formed to help everyone, no matter how small their group, learn to speak the language of data, and if we can all get together to shout, even better.