Why cities are the perfect innovation testbed

Events, Government

Cities have become the ideal testbed for emerging technology—from AI to autonomous vehicles to IoT to green tech, ambitious experiments are producing real results. At Smart Cities NYC ‘17, Strategist Kate Machtiger took note of successes, challenges, and progress to date.

  • Big risks, big rewards. One of the hardest parts of realizing a moonshot vision can be putting future goals ahead of near-term profits. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson recounted of some of the controversial decisions he’s made in his quest to make Vancouver green, including a “zero emission” requirement for new buildings in rezoned areas. Though developers and contractors initially resisted the increased costs, the environmentally-friendly approaches these firms developed drove new business across cities striving for greener urban landscapesproving ambitious goals can have unintended positive side effects.
  • The best design comes from constraints. For cities, “design for all” isn’t just nice to have, it’s the law. But when designing new technology, accessibility can often be the last consideration for teams before roll-out. Victor Calise, ‎Commissioner of New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, highlighted the importance of focusing on accessibility from the start of the design process, “so it doesn’t become a financial burden.” But as Rita Soni noted, it’s not just about cost savings: building for people with disabilities results in better design for everyone (as Charles Eames famously said, a “willingness and enthusiasm for working within constraints” is what sets good design apart).
  • Competition breeds scalable results. All cities want to be world-renowned, whether it’s for being “best” at something or just “first”. Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff noted the opportunity to harness this competitive energy to fuel experiments in emerging technology and scale best practices. In the realm of data, Boston and Dubai are pioneering new approaches with CityScore (Boston’s goal: become data-driven) and Smart Dubai (Dubai’s goal: create a happier city). Meanwhile, Vancouver highlighted its green goals that will pave the way to becoming the greenest city in the world. For the private sector, these goals can serve as ideal avenues for partnership, as one experiment can set the stage for numerous follow-ons across the globe.
  • Data to what end? Data can only bring you answers if you start with the right questions. On the panel Cloud City, Lilian Coral, the Chief Data Officer of Los Angeles, discussed the city’s journey with data, which started with an open data initiative to increase transparency. But they soon realized that data sharing wasn’t enough: they needed to use this information to drive insights and solve real problems. Citizen engagement was crucial to understanding context and connecting the dots. The need for context was echoed by Younus Al Nasser, CEO of Dubai Data Establishment, who highlighted the importance of having “data champions” across the organization, not just tech savvy data departments. Often, it takes on-the-ground experience to make data meaningful.
  • People aren’t the problem, they’re the answer. Like any big organization, cities can fall victim to “shiny object syndrome”, buying new technology without figuring out what specific problems it will solve. Citizens are then treated as one of many obstacles to implementation, not potential collaborators. But as Dan Doctoroff suggested in his keynote, “It’s not about the innovation itself, it’s about quality of life: equity, opportunity, health.” If technology is not tangibly improving real lives, it isn’t worth the investment.

Tune in to @LuminaryLabs to watch how these experiments continue. For more on Smart Cities NYC ‘17, check out #SCNYC17.

Photo by Kate Machtiger