The field will shift from having lone 'technologists' at organizations to everyone having a base level of knowledge and awareness of technology, so that all staff members can be on the lookout for opportunities."
What is it?
Tech Savvy Planning is an approach to technology in cities that involves three aspects. First, as the newest type of urban infrastructure with a large amount of complexity, it is deserving of its own focused work and strategy. Technology is not an afterthought or something used to solve problems intermittently. Second, there are a variety of technology types in cities that need to be considered in their own right and integrated for a holistic approach. More details are provided in How to Focus, Categorize, and Integrate Your Urban Technology. These days, many technology products generate their own data that is not only useful for one purpose, but many. In addition, some technology products have features and functions that are useful for both primary and secondary purposes. One example in the transit space is leveraging automatic vehicle location (AVL) data for fleet management (i.e., real time data on the location of vehicles to estimate on time arrivals) for public-facing real time transit data apps, such as One Bus Away. Agencies need the AVL data for operational purposes, but they can plug that data into public-facing apps to provide public information as well.
Third, technology in cities should actually improve the quality of life and basic city services. It can be easy to get distracted with the latest and greatest, but particularly where technology is concerned, it is critical to have clarity on the “why.” Some level of piloting and experimentation is always useful to test assumptions about what technology might be able to help vs. what it is actually able to help. You don’t need to know all the details right at the beginning, and it can be an iterative learning process. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that with cities, taxpayer funds tend to be involved, and that raises the stakes for ensuring effectiveness. With so many challenges in our cities, there needs to be clear documentation as to why the technology in place is worth the cost vs. using the funds for other pressing needs. There is a level of financial accountability that is front and center when working on urban improvements of any type. More details are provided in How to Evaluate Technology According to Potential Impact.
After working in transportation technology with Atlanta Regional Commission 2012-2016 and after serving as the Smart Cities Program Manager with the City of Atlanta 2016-2017, I’ve been in a position to observe how challenging this space can be and thinking of ways to make it better. More about my smart cities, transportation, and data-driven decision making work is here.
For whom is it?
Tech Savvy Planning presents technology in a way that can be understood by most any urban planning and management professional. In fact, that is key these days. The field will shift from having lone “technologists” at organizations to everyone having a base level of knowledge and awareness of technology, so that all staff members can be on the lookout for opportunities. Particularly since the field has so many specialists in niche areas of planning, they are the ones who know their sub-area or niche the best, and thus, are best positioned to apply effective technology to it. Expecting a technologist to understand every in and out of an organization is not feasible, but coupled with a broader staff understanding, can be a great strategy.
How is it useful?
Tech Savvy Planning communicates technology in plain terms, which means a special vocabulary is not required. There should be no translation aspect. Urban planning and management professionals know their field and work, so understanding how to apply technology is simply the next step for many.
Technology for cities currently can be, frankly, overwhelming and confusing. First, there is the issue of everything changing so quickly. It can feel like there is no solid object around when trying to make decisions about technology. Second, there is the issue of ambiguity and future unknowns. Sure, you can procure something today for this and next year well enough, but what about the year after that? Anything can happen by then, and yet, the hope is that the technology will last for four years. These are tough situations everyone in the field is navigating now. There are rarely clear answers, but there are strategic planning techniques that can be applied. More details are provided in How to Apply Strategic Planning Techniques to Manage Future Technology Unknowns. Third, there are few models and guides for how to navigate this process as an urban planning and management professional. Often such professionals are faced with a multitude of vendors presenting various products. Without a driving logic and vision of what the technology should do to focus these conversations, they can become a free for all. The mind may take in all the opportunities, but it does not have a framework for evaluating them or placing them in context with the greater “why” – why is this important and not that? Why are we focused on solving this problem and not that one?
Urban planning and management is a field where decision-making is core to most activities. There are so many challenges facing our cities, it is a constant battle in the mind and in reality to pick the best one. The truth is, we can’t improve everything, at least not at the same time. There are staff and budget limitations as well as bandwidth limitations. Tech Savvy Planning will help you and your organization have clarity that the decisions you are making are the best given current information and circumstances.
What are the articles in the series?
...the level-headed cousin is methodical, sometimes quiet and pensive, and works behind the scenes neutrally beginning work in cities with the question, ‘can technology help this challenge?’ ”
Smart = Technology?
“Smart cities” has become a popular phrase in the past 8 years or so, generally referring to the increased use of technology in cities. “Smart” and “technology” became synonymous somehow, and this movement mirrors what was happening in the domestic realm during the same period. “Smart” home devices for utilities, baby monitoring, and other purposes include connection to the Internet. This, in turn, enables remote access. Some "smart" devices even include an element of predictive capability, meaning past behavior is monitored and processed to arrive at likely future behaviors and consequent settings for such home devices. “Smart” for a smart city includes Internet connectivity, but is not necessarily limited to it. It could encompass other technological efforts with limited or no significant Internet-based component. Ultimately, “smart” pertaining to home devices has more to with the predictive capabilities, meaning the technology is processing past actions and making educated guesses about future desires, while “smart” applied to cities has become widely connected with technology in general.
Technology and quality of life improvements
The catch is, technology should never be thought of for its own sake. Technology is a viable and powerful resource to apply to problem-solving and urban improvements, but it should not be applied in cases where it won’t make a significant improvement or won’t solve a problem. Some urban challenges are so connected to human behavior or poor policy making, that technology won’t make a dent in the problem. If you don’t know the history of the challenge, it can seem as though technology is the way forward. Cities are funded primarily with public dollars, often have major budgetary constraints, and tend to have a lot of subject areas that are in need of improvement. Zeroing in on technology as a primary solution, in some cases improperly applied and demanding a large amount of public funding, can be a danger zone. Technology requires experimentation and testing, and it makes sense to have trial projects and see how things work, but scaling up projects with a large amount of public funding must be treated with care. Some technology works well only in a network effect. In short, only if it is deployed on a large scale does it have a chance of being impactful. Further, with the myriad needs cities face from the poor state of transportation infrastructure maintenance and gaps in services for the homeless to critical needs for senior citizens and balanced, attainable, and affordable housing, cities have their work cut out for them. And sure, technology has a role to play that should absolutely be explored, but it is not the single silver bullet cities need for an improved quality of life.
Pitfalls of defining urban challenges too narrowly
Professionals who come from other domains and are new to the city and urban domain have a lot to learn about how cities function and the nature of urban challenges. In some cases, professionals, including urban planning and management professionals, can be guilty of defining urban problems too narrowly or simplistically, either because they don’t know better yet, or because the the off-the-shelf technology they had in mind would fit the bill if the problem were at such a scope. In other cases, they may not have had enough time working on city issues to understand the complexities involved. You can rarely make a change in one area that does not impact another, and this is when unintended consequences occur. They may simply lack the experience to understand how these ripple effects could occur.
Can technology help this challenge?
As opposed to smart cities, which is a loaded term that means different things to different people and equates technology with smart with good, let’s use something like Tech Savvy Planning. This is a simple notion that expresses that technology becoming increasingly integrated in our cities is inevitable. Understanding what technology can help, in which situations it can help, and how and when to apply it are the key questions to ask. I think of Tech Savvy Planning as the level-headed cousin of smart cities. They share some family connections, and they see each other at family reunions, but the level-headed cousin is methodical, sometimes quiet and pensive, and works behind the scenes neutrally beginning work in cities with the question, “can technology help this challenge?” To learn more about applying Tech Savvy Planning to your work, see How to Focus, Categorize, and Integrate Your Urban Technology.
At this point, it is not about being right or wrong, it is about getting started and capturing thoughts that may remain highly relevant as you build your tech strategy. You’ll continue to add on additional layers, but this initial brainstorm is the best place to begin."
How to focus initially
The educational article series introduction mentioned, “What do you want to do with tech? Without a driving logic and vision of what the technology should do to focus these conversations, they can become a free for all. The mind may take in all the opportunities, but it does not have a framework for evaluating them.”
Starting an urban technology journey, as with many journeys, begins with focus. As stated in the same article, “understanding what technology can help, in which situations it can help, and how and when to apply it are the key questions to ask.” Think, alone or with colleagues, about what technology can help and in which situations it can help. Sketch or map out these areas to collect your initial, fresh insights. At this point, it is not about being right or wrong, it is about getting started and capturing thoughts that may remain highly relevant as you build your tech strategy. You’ll continue to add on additional layers, but this initial brainstorm is the best place to begin. We’ll refer to this later as the “focus sketch.”
How to categorize to build awareness and depth
Now, let’s get into the functional categories of technology in cities. After we’ve run through these, you’ll have additional thoughts to add to your focus sketch. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of categories, but an illustrative one. First, there are analytical products. These tend to be software that are used for certain purposes such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for mapping and data analysis and specific functions depending on the agency. Take a transit agency for example; they often use route-planning software customized for such a purpose. Second, there are operational products. These are common for service-oriented organizations or those requiring real time data collection for various purposes. Again, thinking of transit agencies, they tend to have fare payment systems, automatic vehicle location platforms, and asset management software.
Operational products tend to have a mix of software and hardware as well as Internet connectivity to process extracted data in real time. Other common examples are traffic congestion monitoring and bike and pedestrian data. While there have been separate “counters” for each of these items (cars, bikes, pedestrians, etc.) in the past, it is becoming increasingly common to capture data on these items through one single piece of hardware, a well-positioned device with a video camera and connected algorithms to track such items, count them, note the direction of their movement, assess if collisions occurred, and other functions. Third, there are public-facing products, such as apps and websites that provide the public with information they need such as traffic conditions, service notifications, utility payment platforms, and real time transit data. Of course, there are other technologies for office functions such as talent management and payment processing, but our scope is focused on how the organization serves the public.
Now that you understand the categories, create a new “categorization sketch” that illustrates all the technology product types you think might be useful. Perhaps you captured them all already through the focus sketch. If you identified some new ones, go back to the focus sketch and see if any of the new ones in the categorization sketch are worthy of focus. If so, add them to your focus sketch.
How to integrate and approach holistically
For this step, you’ll create a basic diagram of the categories with the technology components core to each category branching from it. In this diagram, you’ll bring any strong ideas from the focus sketch and categorization sketch into one big picture.
You’ll tag the technology product types with terms including “current, soon, and long term” to differentiate between what you already have (current), should deploy in the near future (soon), and what comes later down the line (long term). Then, you’ll look at each technology and map connections between them and add tags for “existing and future” for cases in which a) there is an existing connection between two current technology product types (existing) or b) there should be a connection made in the future (future). From the educational article series introduction, “One example in the transit space is leveraging automatic vehicle location (AVL) data for fleet management (i.e., real time data on the location of vehicles to estimate on time arrivals) for public-facing real time transit data apps, such as One Bus Away. Agencies need the AVL data for operational purposes, but they can plug that data into public-facing apps to provide public information as well.” Some integration concepts will be less obvious, so its important to think deeply about all the ways connections could be useful for a variety of purposes.
What these results can provide
The integration diagram can provide a base for various types of documents and decision-making guides, at the strategic level and tactical level. These could include a Technology Strategic Plan, Technology Vision Plan, Technology Tactical Implementation Plan, and others. Furthermore, it could provide a base for a technology component of a broader plan that spans topics outside of technology, such as an Organization Strategic Plan and others. Learn more in How to Evaluate Technology According to Potential Impact to take your Tech Savvy Planning to the next level.