We Built this {Smart} City

We Built this {Smart} City
Happy Wednesday everyone! I hope you are all enjoying the week so far! It’s kind of been a crazy week here with the weather being unseasonably hot still (guys, I literally had the fan in the window last night and it’s about 90 degrees out today!), and some house-related insanity (my alarm system was basically beeping every four hours for 2 days straight 😔 ), but we’re halfway through the week now! Woo hoo! I also hear the weather is going to start returning to normal temps for this time of year which is exciting because I have some delicious cozy-weather recipes I’ve been dying to bust out! I’m sure you’ll be seeing them crop up on your Instagram feed soon (if you follow me 😉 ).

Photo by Lee Aik Soon on Unsplash
I mentioned this a few weeks ago in my #lendahand post, but this time of year also kicks off some volunteering work that I do for an organization called Future City. It’s a competition where school kids in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade design and build (model) cities of the future. Each year has a different focus like sustainable agriculture (get ready to eat LOTS of crickets and tilapia!), transportation, or storm water runoff/pollution; and I LOVE seeing what the kids come up with. Through this organization, or rather research I was doing about last year’s topic of public space, I came across a real-world example of future city planning here in the US. I was largely unaware of this effort before my research, and thought it was SO exciting that I wanted to share. Starting in December 2015, the US Department of Transportation launched an initiative called the Smart City Challenge. According to their website:

[The]  Smart  City  Challenge,  [asked]  mid-sized cities across America to develop ideas for an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently. The Challenge generated an overwhelming response: 78 applicant cities shared the challenges they face and ideas for how to tackle them.  Then, [the] seven finalists worked with DOT to further develop their ideas.


Before I go too far down the path of the Challenge itself, I want to take a moment and talk about what a Smart City is exactly. Basically, a Smart City incorporates the use of data collected through a variety of methods – such as sensors, cell phones, traffic cams, kiosks and other components of the Internet of Things – and uses this data to better manage how the city operates. It can help increase public safety, reduce traffic congestion, assist with parking, monitor public health, and so many other things. A really great overview article from the Wall Street Journal earlier this year gives real-world examples of what cities are already doing.

Another part of Smart Cities, which explains why I’m so excited, is that they also inherently support sustainable development. Less traffic congestion = fewer emissions, smart street lighting = better for nocturnal animals and also reduced energy consumption, connected transportation systems promote greater social equality, more data on public health can lead to better air and water quality. Sometimes the environmental and sustainability aspects are the driving forces behind cities wanting to become smarter, sometimes they happen in the background – generally when projects are looked at for long-term financial savings. Either way, smarter cities lead to more sustainable cities, and that’s a win in my book – and worthy of geeking out over! 😃 If you’d like to learn more about Smart Cities in general, there are a TON of resources out there – from vendors to TED talks to news articles. Some of the ones I found to be the most helpful are listed below:

Unfortunately, the Capital Region here in NY was not selected as a finalist of the Smart City Challenge (although they did submit a vision statement which you can see here if you’re interested), but it was still really interesting to see what different cities came up with as challenges and solutions. You can see the overview of the lessons learned on the Smart City website here, and download the report if you’re interested in diving deeper.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash
Kansas City, MO was one of the finalists (and my personal favorite) and they adopted a streetcar in their downtown and kiosks at all the streetcar stops that not only show the arrival time for the next trolley but also display curated content about the city such as restaurants, concerts, and sports games. (You can read more about their project in this Huffington Post article. There’s a lot of innovation happening there!). Austin, TX was another finalist and they envision a future world with a lot of driver-less vehicles, electrification of high-use fleet vehicles like taxis and buses, real-time traffic alerts, and integration across all modes of transportation in the form of a unified transportation app. (You can read more about their plan in this BizJournal article or watch a couple of videos about their proposal here.)

Columbus, OH was the winning city and they shared a lot of ideas with the other cities I mentioned (unified app, electric and driverless vehicles, data integration, sensors, unified payment…). What I thought was really interesting about their plan was that they also included collision avoidance as one of their projects (to avoid human-bus collisions), and plan to collect data on residents that may need more transportation options and assistance such as communities with higher infant mortality rates. If you’d like to read more about their project you can check that out here, here, or here.

Photo by Oliver Wendel on Unsplash
I am interested to see if the non-awarded cities will begin to implement some of their plans as time goes on. Each city had to put in effort to design their vision statement, so they have started down that path. I would LOVE to see some of the proposed plans crop up here. Having greater public transportation is something I’ve wished for locally for years now, and the streetcars in Kansas City look so cool! Not to mention those kiosks! They’d be really handy in finding out what’s going on and boosting the local economy. It would be great to have more electric vehicles on the road as well, and I honestly wouldn’t mind driverless vehicles either. If I could use my commute time for other things, that would be fantastic! I’m also curious to see if cities tweak their initial vision statements now that they have so many others to riff off of, in addition to the finalists and any test-sites that have moved forward.

What would you like to see in your community implement to become a Smart(er) city? Are you totally on board with the electric vehicles? Maybe the traffic-congestion sensors are up your alley. Or are you on board with me and wishing for those awesome kiosks?! If you have any experience with Smart Cities I’d love to hear about that too!