A Primer on Smart Cities: Using Technology and Intelligent Design to Make Cities More Livable, Workable and Sustainable
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.
I had almost reached the far curb on an extremely busy street in Chiang Mai, Thailand when I heard the unmistakable sound of metal-on-pavement. I immediately sensed that something was careening toward me and I remember thinking, “I hope whatever that is misses me.” It didn’t. As the motorcycle slid by, I glanced down and saw the rear tire sweep my legs out from under me. I clearly should have been more careful since just the day before I had received, essentially, a warning from the Mayor.
The previous day we were at the Chiang Mai City Hall and were ushered into an ornate gold and white room. There we met Mayor Tassanai Buranupakorn. He has been Mayor for several years and had a few projects he wanted to discuss. One project that he was very proud of was a new free lunch program that he had recently implemented for students from low-income families.
I soon found that the Mayor was particularly interested in talking about smart cities. He was aware that I had done a workshop on the subject at the University of Chiang Mai and wanted my thoughts. Chiang Mai had recently been awarded a Smart Cities Grant by the national government and he needed to determine what his priorities should be.
Although Mayor Buranupakorn had not decided his top priority, he was leaning toward focusing on traffic control. He went on to explain that traffic accidents were a leading cause of death in Thailand and, in fact, THE leading cause among people from age 15 – 40. Accidents with the “small motorcycles” were of particular concern.
Of course, he was also considering using the funding for economic development and to improve the transportation infrastructure, but he was very firm about the importance of making his city streets safe for motorists and pedestrians. That was his top priority. As I indicated above, I soon discovered for myself that his concerns were based in reality.
Whether we know it or not, before long we will all be discussing how to set priorities for “smart city” projects. A brief primer on the subject might help set the stage for those discussions.
What is a “City”?
First, it is important to recognize that, according to the Smart Cities Council, “real-world smart city examples are rarely a city in the strictest sense. Many are more than a single city, such as a metropolitan region, a cluster of cities, counties and groups of counties, a collection of nearby towns or a regional coalition. Other examples are less than a full-scale city, such as districts, neighborhoods, townships, villages, campuses and military bases. Indeed, many municipalities are taking a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to modernization.” (http://readinessguide.smartcitiescouncil.com/article/introduction-smart-cities, retrieved 05/07/2017)
What is a “Smart” City?
Although there are many definitions of what a “smart city” is, more important is what a smart city does. The Smart Cities Council (http://smartcitiescouncil.com), for example, explains that smart cities use “digital technology and intelligent design” to make their cities more livable, workable and sustainable.
More specifically, a smart city uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to collect and analyze information to improve its ability to make data-driven decisions. This information may be collected from direct digital interaction with embedded sensors (the Internet of Things) or from people in the community (prosumers). These concepts will be discussed in further detail below.
As you can see, a “smart city” is a broad concept. Let’s break it down into some of its components which will help us see that there are incremental steps we can take as we move forward.
The collection of data is the foundation on which smart cities are built. The good news is that local governments do, and always have (ask your town clerk), collected data. What we need to be looking at going forward is whether we are collecting the right information in a usable format, making it as widely accessible as legally possible (open data), and organizing it so that it can be analyzed to provide useful information.
A basic element of any “smart” system is the feedback loop. In its most basic form, a feedback loop is a feature of a system that allows outputs of that system to impact the input in the system. The understanding of the application of feedback loops is used in the most effective form of “data-based decision-making.”
A simple feedback loop can be illustrated using the example of applications that allow citizens to provide data to their town or city. In Hooksett, for example, we use a program called “Citizen Request Tracker.” If you go to www.hooksett.org, either on your computer or a smart phone, you will see a button for “Requests and Complaints.” This will take you to a simple interface that allows you to input data in several categories (e.g., Code Enforcement Complaints; Roadway Shoulder Damage).
These requests go directly to the responsible department supervisor, who is expected to respond within 24 hours. If the situation can be rectified immediately, it is; if it will take time, an explanation is provided. The point is that the feedback from the citizens on an element in the system has an immediate impact on the data available to the town and results in a quick action on that element.
Of course, for a feedback loop to work properly it is necessary that the data that drives the impacts be accurate and timely. There are two primary sources from which local governments can get such data: the Internet of Things and prosumers (producer/consumer).
The Internet of Things (IoT)
Of course, a major difference that we are already seeing is how data is collected. Increasingly, data is collected by sensors, video equipment and other machines. The data is then transmitted through the internet, sometimes directly to storage and, more frequently, to other connected devices.
The Consul General in Chiang Mai, for example, told us how the government of Thailand has sensor devices around the country to monitor air quality. She explained that the air pollution is not just a problem because of cars, but also because they have a farming technique that includes burning fields, which results in large plumes of choke-inducing white smoke.
This data is automatically sent to a system that analyzes the data and posts the Air Quality Index (AQI) on their government website. The data shows up in real time; the analysis is done hourly. To help distribute the information, the Consulate has included information on its website explaining how to get to, and use the information (https://th.usembassy.gov/message-u-s-citizens-air-quality-northern-thailand/).
Prosumer is a word coined by futurist Alvin Toffler that originally referred to those who are both producers and consumers of media. It is a useful term and has been used in a variety of contexts. A prosumer within the concept of smart cities falls into a number of different categories.
In energy generation, for example, a prosumer would be a person who is attached to the grid but is not only using energy but also feeding back into the grid through their capture of solar or wind energy.
Prosumers are very important to the smart city data collection process. Many police departments are using Twitter to keep the public informed of things happening within their communities such as closed roads, upcoming events and meetings related to emergency management. For example, the Manchester, NH police department has over 11,200 Twitter followers that consume its information.
Police departments like Manchester actively encourage followers to move into the prosumer category by asking them for feedback. For example, during a recent manhunt the police tweeted a link to a WMUR-TV news story, a picture of the fugitive and the following message: “Let’s use the power social media, re tweet it, get it out there, let’s locate him. Working together is the only way we can start winning.” I don’t know if this tweet generated any tips, but the fugitive was soon in custody.
Requesting feedback from the public in the areas of emergency management, environmental protections, code enforcement, etc. is becoming more common and provides a level of engagement that can provide immediate benefits.
Digital technology, the driving force of smart cities, is going to continue to advance. It will soon be possible to use the IoT and prosumers to help move municipalities forward. Emergency management, environmental protection, economic development, and just about every other area that has a spatial component and requires data can be made more effective and efficient using developing technologies. Mayor Buranupakorn in Chiang Mai determined his priorities based on the obvious need in his city. Have you?
Dean Shankle is town administrator in the Town of Hooksett. Dean can be reach by email at email@example.com or by telephone at 603.485.8472.