...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.