This article is by Mike Steep, senior vice president of global business operations at PARC and distinguished visiting scholar at Stanford University.
David Gann keeps bees. But he’s so severely allergic to their sting that his wife has to keep an EpiPen handy. Regaling us with stories of the bees, Gann, vice-president of Imperial College London, unwinds after our Palo Alto panel discussion in traditional British fashion, with a pint.
His passion for beekeeping is obvious. Back home in England he has planted a garden he knows will suit the bees. He also knows what kinds of flowers his neighbors grow and where the bees are likely to head when they leave his yard. In other words, he has carefully cultivated a system in which the insects can thrive and produce. Did I mention that he is also the chair of the Smart London board for the London mayor’s office? He’s the guy tapped to orchestrate the transformation of Europe’s largest city into a Smart City.
Earlier in the evening, the Churchill Club had hosted a panel discussion on Smart Cities, ”Cities and the Digital Frontier.” The panel included Gann; Jay Mezher, director of virtual design and construction at Parsons Brinkerhoff; Katharine Frase, vice president and chief technology officer, IBM Public Sector; and me. Michael Chui, a principal at McKinsey Global Institute, moderated.
Whenever Smart Cities are discussed, there’s always a lot of focus on the kind of gee-whiz, futuristic technologies we were promised way back in The Jetsons. London is already experimenting with frictionless payment methods that would allow you to load credits onto your smartphone and simply stroll onto public transit. No need even to remove the device from your pocket or purse. Near field communication will pick up the signal and automatically deduct the fare from your account. No queuing up to buy tickets or load a transit card. That means more efficient travel for you and lower costs for the operator. That’s a paradigmatic example of the kind of utopian promise we’ve come to expect from smart technologies.
But after more than a decade of discussion and active implementation of Smart City initiatives, questions about the nature of human interactions in systems, both subtle and fundamental, are beginning to emerge. What does it really mean to be an engaged citizen in the new landscape of technology? What are the roles and responsibilities of leaders? Michael Chui, in his opening remarks, revealed that just sustaining the projected urbanization in the coming decades will require more than $1 trillion in capital expenditure for infrastructure. Because the scale of change is so massive, it’s easy to miss where the real inflection point lies—with people.
Creating new infrastructure requires budgeting, planning, negotiating, and having a fairly sophisticated understanding of the behaviors of the constituents you intend to serve. Each of those tasks may be aided by technology, but you can’t get around dealing with humans. Collecting data turns out to be the easy part. Sharing it and finding ways to make it useful for people are the real challenges. As Katharine Frase noted, even sharing data among government departments isn’t a given. “If you go to somebody in a city agency and you say, ‘Could you make a better decision if you could see some of the information from the department next door?’ The answer is almost always yes. Great. The natural next question is, ‘And will you share information with him?’ And the answer is almost never yes.”
Once data is freed, how it’s shared matters a lot. Routine train schedules garner more engagement when feedback from the people who use them every day is taken into account. “We found that people didn’t just want the statement of data, they wanted the pictogram to see the train on their device coming toward the station,” according to Gann. “It gave them more confidence that the data was real.”
Jay Mezher’s company made similar observations. Parsons Brinckerhoff creates 3D models of city infrastructure for planning projects. Mezher discovered that he got better, more collaborative decisions when people could see and understand the data in a visual way. “Once you share this information in a really simplified and easy manner, everyone will provide you with meaningful input.” Another virtue of Mezher’s models is that they allow people to see cities for what they really are—layers of data. As I mentioned in a previous article, people move through levels of a city. They take the subway, stroll through parks, and enjoy the view from rooftops gardens. The most relevant solutions will account for this mobility and integrate our experiences across the layers.
The implications for a new breed of smart leader are clear: Embrace technology, and include citizens in your decisions. Chui observed, “More than ever you have to understand the motivations of people. And even things like behavioral economics—people aren’t just robotic, rational actors. There’s no way to lead people without understanding that.”
The call to citizens is equally clear: Engage. London values citizen feedback and interaction so much it created the London Datastore, an open portal designed to display multiple data sets in ways that are easy for citizens to consume. “This isn’t just about public transparency,” says Gann. “It’s about an opportunity to create services from that data. And I think that’s going to encourage us to actually put more types of data on there.” City leaders know that how people respond to the information is another crucial form of data.
Like beekeepers, we’re all actors in the system responding to and using the data at hand. We are part of what makes the city smart. True citizen engagement is about anticipating issues and working to become part of the solution. Sensors can supply the data, but it will be up to each of us to use it to make our cities responsive and more livable.
Our sincere thanks to Karen Tucker, chief executive of the Churchill Club, for putting together an outstanding event. You can enjoy the entire panel discussion in the video below.