Smart Cities

How the people shaping the future of cities think about the cities of the future

Five city innovation leads talk about how they’d build a smart city from scratch.
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Illustration: Morning Brew, Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

· 10 min read

This article is part of our series on smart cities—click here to visit the interactive hub and explore other stories.

Call it what you want—chief innovation officer, chief information officer, director of innovation and technology—either way, the role is increasingly at the center of smart city projects across the US.

An innovation chief’s responsibilities can vary as much as the cities they work for, but in general they share one focus: delivering better technology outcomes to residents. That can range from improving IT infrastructure for local government workers to city pilots for emerging technologies like drone programs or autonomous vehicles.

Pretty much every city CIO in the US—with the exception of Telosa’s forthcoming one, of course—is dealing with a city with decades of accumulated infrastructure, community, and culture, all of which can make implementing new technologies challenging. It’s no easy task to figure out how new technology fits into any system—let alone the complex physical and social fabric of a city.

But what if a city could be shaped without concerns about existing infrastructure, or budget?

To better understand where their priorities lie, we asked CIOs across the country one simple question:

If you could build a smart city from scratch, what would it look like?

These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Grace Simrall

I think every city has run into this problem of, “Hey, we want to be able to leverage data and technology. But the productivity cost per device is cost prohibitive, right, I can’t really do this at scale.” I might be able to do a corridor, a section of the city, but to ultimately see efficiency at scale, I really do need to cover the whole city.

So if I were able to, I would have underground infrastructure facilities. I’d have conduit throughout the city that would make it incredibly cheap to both construct and to maintain the fiber-optic networks that power the smart city. You have to have that in place. If you haven’t figured out how you’re going to pay for the connectivity and have robust connectivity at scale, I just don’t know how you’re going to really truly realize the vision of a smart city.

I would make sure that if I don’t own my utility poles, that I own the utility poles and have no issue with that. I would make sure that I already had in place pole attachment agreements and could be able to construct and make sure devices went up there. I would make sure that I had a uniform, single-pane-of-glass data platform. A lot of these smart city technologies are disparate and don’t talk to one another. They also aren’t designed for an enterprise, meaning they might be consumer-grade and aren’t used to navigating a city’s type of firewall restrictions or cybersecurity demands and making sure that those devices are cyber-hardened. So many of them are not and are incredibly easily hacked. And make sure that those devices all have [some] sort of physical, mechanical backup.

We can’t just rely on them strictly through digital means, especially if they’re critical infrastructure. So think about your water pumping and the water pumps that run across the city. Again, you wouldn’t want them to be fully digital. Same thing for smart meters in residential and commercial settings. If, let’s say, those devices are hacked, what’s the default mode for operation? Does everyone lose their power?

I would have a strong set of resources that would be able to monitor and respond.

Mark Wheeler

First and foremost, fiber everywhere, which we don’t have in Philadelphia.

We’re connected, but in some cases, we’re using the older cable coaxial system that telecom companies [are working to] bring up to a fiber-type transmission capacity. It doesn’t really meet our needs. I want [fiber] on every single street, because some places where we have illegal dumping, we don’t even have coaxial cable or fiber nearby. So now we’ve got to trench or bring it across aerially, to put up cameras to monitor for [dumping] and respond to it. So fiber, if you were going to set up all of the street poles, being much more thoughtful about placing those so they can have multiple purposes like we’re doing now. The new smart pole could be an EV charger, could have multiple plug-and-play receptacles for sensors, would have its own antenna for wi-fi transmission, and also provide free wi-fi to community businesses. So that would definitely be a structure.

And the operations themselves? If you’re gonna build them up, you’re building for that 24/7 data, and how do you want to react to it. Ethical AI training for everyone and maybe an institute that is constantly looking at the developments of AI and its impacts on society and citizens, and whether some things we should be adopting and other things we should be just keeping on the back burner. I’m not one of those people that says no to technology, you can’t do it, but I think societally we need to have a stronger hand at making some of those decisions ourselves [about] what’s good for us and what isn’t good for us, or has some real negative effects that you have to acknowledge. Kids being on the phone constantly clearly has had some real negative effects.

So if you’re going to build a [smart city], I think an ethical AI, anything that we put into that city’s operations needs to have a review. “What was the training data? What was the bias? Can we ever get rid of bias as human beings? What level of bias then do we accept based on the available information that we have? Do we want it in a specific use case?” Like, “Do we want AI? Just in our mobility use? Do we want it for some type of crime prevention?” And I bring those up theoretically. You do need folks helping you make ethical decisions.

Brian Osterloh

I think it would be comprised of a technology system that looks a lot like other systems in place. The transportation system, for example, has a number of different ways things get transported. You have railroads, you have arterioles, interstates, US Highways, barges, air traffic. I think those grew out of different innovations at different times, and different values for those innovations. So for me, what it would look like is trying to put in place “How do I make as flexible a technology ecosystem as I possibly can?”

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For smart cities, for example, there’s fiber, or just a copper line, or wi-fi, CBRS, Starlink. All of those can have a play. Radio, microwave connections. How do I create a system? I’m more concerned about having power and having connectivity than anything else. Because if I have power, I can power a sensor of connectivity, I can send data back to some kind of system that’s going to make sense of that data.

I guess if I had to do it over again, if I had to start from scratch, I’d probably have fiber in every street, I’d have what I call a “fiber hydrant.” Imagine if you could go to a corner, just like firefighters, go to a corner and hook a hose into a fire hydrant. What if you could go to a corner and hook your mobile command station into a fiber connection very easily? Now you’ve got 10 gigs going to that mobile command station. Imagine the video feeds and the information you could have going back and forth, whether it’s a fire, or an emergency situation, like an active shooter, or something like that. That’s what I would do: Make sure I had great connectivity throughout and that I had available power throughout.

Santiago Garces

I would say that the first thing that I would want to do is put the resident up front. What does the resident experience need to be?

I think the other piece that we’ve learned over the past decade is being really mindful about the equity implications of the work that we do, in the sense that even though every resident is impacted by what happens in the city, some residents have less resources... If you think about climate change, you think about…racism, think about almost any large macro problem that impacts cities. Usually, the people that are the most vulnerable to [those] problems are the people that might not always have the most say, or the most ability to change it, right?

So I think that those two pieces, being very careful about understanding what the user experience is and being very mindful about the equity implications of what we do. And from there on, being creative. Knowing that technology changes so quickly [and] that it’s not about, like, any one specific technology…Another key thing that’s a lesson learned: more emphasis on security. If it’s not safe and secure, how are people going to trust it?

The whole point of having a good government should be a government that you trust, and you trust it because it does the thing that you think it should do, and you think that it does it reliably and securely.

David Graham

I’ll give you quick example about why the next new technology is not the solution—it’s really about building that sustainable community for the future and not about the technology that you should use.

You’re familiar with Southern California. Do you think about Southern California as a hub of really good public transit and transportation? No, right? You think about a car-centric culture; you think about traffic.

Here in San Diego, when the city was growing initially back in the late 1800s, you started out with your normal horse and wagon. The next technology was to add rails. You had essentially horse-drawn trolleys throughout San Diego. That made sense because they were on a track, they were faster, they were easier, they were more efficient by doing it that way.

The next innovation was electric trolleys. In San Diego, you could take a trolley to the beach. You could take the trolley to neighborhoods that today don’t have public transportation. You had these privately run companies that created a good public-transit system for San Diego, because each little iteration on the technology—of that horse-drawn, track-based trolley—was just the next step.

But then came the disruptive innovation. A new technology came along that was able to carry more people, not have to rely upon tracks, could go anywhere in the city, could move you around, it could be flexibly changed at any point in time instead of being stuck with those rails that you used to have with those electric trolleys in San Diego. You know what that technology was? The bus. So you could drive around San Diego today on asphalt roads, and you would be driving over what used to be electric trolley tracks. And decades later, we invested hundreds of times more money to get back to having a trolley that doesn’t even go to the places it used to.

I say this because it’s not about the technology. It’s about the community that you’re trying to build. It’s not about solving the immediate problem. It’s about the long-term future and strategy.

So what would I be building if I were talking about building the community?

Many of the things would have very, very little to do with technology. We’d be talking about a well-planned urban community that allows for walking, biking, and recreation in places that are distributed throughout the entire city. We’d be talking about dedicated bike lanes and roundabouts and reducing the number of intersections in which a car, a bike, or a pedestrian has to interact. We would be talking about a sustainable city that is built on renewable energy that is using every square foot of space that you could. We should be thinking about reducing the amount of car culture and finding ways to have efficient public transit and micro-transit so people can get around wherever it is that they want to go.

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