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Griffin Smith (MCP2) spent the summer in Salt Lake City, Utah, working with the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the S.J. Quinney College of Law – University of Utah and the Environmental Planning Center at the The University of Utah. He mediated consensus-building efforts in underserved areas in the Mountain West. In particular, he focused on a rural Utahan community, helping it develop a regional plan, incorporate climate change projections into its efforts, and develop resiliency against other emerging challenges. As part of this, he supported community conversations about climate risks facing the vulnerable region around Zion National Park and piloted and tested climate communication methods. He also researched affordable housing policies for such gateway and amenity communities. He turned this work into a teaching roleplay for students learning about collaboration. In addition, he created a framework for a state civility initiative to restore and build civil politics and discourse in the state. Griffin’s work this summer builds off his previous work mediating conflicts at the Consensus Building Institute and studying public and environmental policy at MIT.

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So what is a “smart city”, anyway?

ImageThe planning and tech worlds alike have taken up the mandate to build “smarter” cities. However, there seems to be a wide array of definitions regarding what makes a city smart. When we talk about smarter cities, what are we talking about?

In his thesis, Tuan-Yee Ching (MCP ’13) provides a framework to consider the different ways that cities view themselves—and their initiatives—as “smart.” In a six-city study that includes interviews with officials in Boston, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Singapore, and Rio de Janeiro, Tuan-Yee discovered four different ways that cities consider themselves to be smart.

A city may call itself smart because it adopts new technologies and adapts itself to their use, as with Rio’s deployment of a suite of advanced weather sensors to better track and respond to local weather impacts. A city may also be smart for adopting new collaborative processes to work with stakeholder communities in innovative new areas, like San Francisco’s “Unhackathon” that crowd-sourced ideas to optimize taxi service with technological improvements. Cities may be smart because of a commitment to learning and adaption informed by lessons from other cities and the use of performance metrics, as in Boston’s participation in the G7 network of American cities that offers a forum for idea-sharing between municipal Chief Information Officers. Or cities may call themselves smart because they make investments in the technology sector that promise future returns, as with Singapore’s “Living Lab” fund, which offers public sector support for ventures in clean energy, urban mobility, IT, and public safety.

Tuan discusses the implications for these four very different notions of what a smart city really is, and he provides a series of recommendations for policymakers to keep in mind as they try to make their cities smarter—whatever that means to them. Read more in his thesis.