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Smart Cities: An Intersection of Technology and Social Impact

by Janice Hu, 2Y 2019

“Today, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050.” – United Nations

I am one of the 55 percent that lives in urban areas, and many of us will probably be part of the 68 percent in 30 years. Like many of you, I am drawn to cities for the collision of cultures and potential for big, risky dreams. However, our migration creates a problem – we drive up rent prices with our higher willingness-to-pay, displace families through gentrification and change the cultural landscape to look only like ourselves. Cities are becoming exclusive, and they are losing the very aspects we love most. How can we protect and promote what makes our cities desirable? How can we make them more beautiful, affordable, and hospitable for all citizens?

I began my quest to answer these questions while living in New York City in 2017. Through my work in advertising technology, I stumbled upon Smart Cities, and I was hooked. It promised a future I wanted to see, and its sexy technology and soulful social good piqued my interest. I learned the lingo and jumped on an opportunity to volunteer at the Smart Cities NY conference in 2017.

Smart Cities was new to me, but I was actually late to the game! Europe already built Smart Cities? Large corporations already made huge investments? When Dan Doctoroff shared his 10 ideas for Sidewalk Labs and the future of cities, I avidly jotted them down. However, as I sought opinions from other attendees, they were skeptical about his approach of building a city “from the internet up.” My source of information had been extremely narrow, and I needed more voices to inform my point of view.

After a year of business school and interning as a Fellow at City Tech, Kellogg Social Impact allowed me to attend Smart Cities NY again in May 2018. Slightly more familiar with Smart Cities, I spent less time in awe of the different ideas and more energy answering this question: What were the different points of view on Smart Cities?

There was one point of view: The goal is inclusion. Across almost all topic areas and experts, inclusion was considered essential to making a difference. Consider this reasoning: areas of greatest need have the most opportunity for improvement, but the challenges are also the greatest. Therefore, solutions must be designed with the most disadvantaged groups in mind.

Take autonomous vehicles, for example. On the Future of Mobility panel, engineers, data scientists and startup founders discussed smart roads, maps, weather features and more. However, they were insistent that autonomous vehicles must prove their ability to help cities achieve Vision Zero – a goal to reduce fatalities. Given that fatality rates are highest in the poorest neighborhoods, autonomous vehicles must be designed to serve the infrastructure and needs there.

However, ironic in the focus on inclusion is the fact that most leaders of the Smart Cities movement do not represent the most disadvantaged demographics. This leads me to ask: How can I, a privileged business-school student, include more perspectives in my quest to make cities better? Perhaps it is what I’ve seen at City Tech – compiling a team of diverse backgrounds, holding workshops with stakeholders, and seeking community input. Perhaps it is the humility that I don’t know very much at all.

Back to my original questions: How can we protect and promote what makes our cities desirable? How can we make them beautiful, affordable, and hospitable for all citizens? While technology offers much potential, it is not the end. As Rahm Emanuel said at Smart Cities NY: “The goal is not technology. Technology is means not an end. Sometimes we get enamored with a tool, but we’re not about that.” What we need are different voices at the table – people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and skills. People – all of them – are what we need.