Today's smart cities are geared toward helping citizens improve their quality of life and increase sustainability through data-backed, technology-driven initiatives. But a big challenge is to ensure that the initiatives are equitably distributed across all sections of the population, say Rana Sen and Jacob Wessel.
Tanya Ott: Last year, four of the top 10 most congested cities in the world were in India.1
Tanya: But something interesting is happening in Mumbai—a city of roughly 20 million people.
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Rana Sen: There is a natural tendency of the drivers in that city, be it on scooters, be it in cars, in buses, to honk repeatedly just about when the traffic lights are turning from yellow to green.
Tanya: It’s something people have done for decades and it’s really noisy.
Rana: What the Mumbai Police department came up with to reduce the noise decibel level and to really create a better environment for everyone is the simple strategy.
Tanya: They installed noise-level sensors at intersections.
Rana: And it shows how, seconds before the lights would turn green, the decibel levels are going up to really unmanageable or very unhealthy levels where they may even turn deaf.
Tanya: There are big screens that display the decibel level and when noise gets above a certain threshold …
Rana: Beyond 92 or 93 …
Tanya: The light turns back to red.
Rana: And [the screens] display a message saying you have to wait 90 more seconds because through your honking the decibel levels went up.
Tanya: So the more they honk, the longer they wait. And early results show it’s working.
Tanya: I’m Tanya Ott, and this is Insights In Depth, where we take a deep dive into the issues that matter to business today. And that experiment in Mumbai? It’s just one example of how a city is using technology to make life better for residents.
Rana Sen is one of our guides for today’s conversation on smart cities.
Rana: I have been serving state and local government agencies over the last 20 years. And over the last couple of years, I’ve taken on the role to lead Deloitte’s efforts in smart cities.
Tanya: The other guide …
Jacob: I’m Jacob Wessel.
Tanya: … is the city of Boston’s public realm director.
Jacob: I mostly oversee programs and policies related to public spaces in the city that aren’t typically about transportation. Everything from a plaza to an outdoor seating area to a restaurant to how sidewalks and public spaces that are controlled by the city are designed and managed, and that includes technological interventions in those spaces.
Tanya: I asked Jacob to define this term “smart cities.”
Jacob: It can really be unpacked to mean a whole lot of different things. But when we think of something like a camera or sensor that is establishing data about how a street is used, that’s definitely one that comes to mind—or deployment of CCTV cameras throughout the city for a variety of reasons, whether that’s to change how our traffic lights are working [or] police departments investigating crimes after the fact [or] a variety of other interventions in our public spaces, but that are at least somewhat digital in nature.
Rana: Smart city as a term came into the nomenclature probably about a decade ago or maybe even more. And at that point, it really was meant from a technology lens, technology driven, if you will. But over the years, it has really evolved from being technology-driven to more of a citizen-focused, data-enabled type of initiative that would and necessarily should help citizens, the residents of the cities, of the towns, of the counties. And this also can open up the aperture and, to Jacob’s point, there’s a lot of complexity and domains that we can start thinking through, as well. Think about how some of the innovations can really help the residents to improve their quality of life and to increase sustainability.
Tanya: Broadening it out to the larger ecosystem: Obviously, these smart city initiatives have the potential to expand access to city services. They have the potential to help protect the health of citizens, as the example from Mumbai demonstrates. But you guys are both really conscious of how they’re designed and how they’re implemented and how that might unintentionally leave some communities behind. Can you talk about this equity issue and some of the missteps that cities might make either in design or implementation?
Jacob: It’s clear that there are definitely a variety of technological interventions that can take place in the city, and a variety of ways that new technologies are enabling us to tackle some problems or provide more data about some of the issues that are currently facing our constituents. But if those types of interventions or those resources are inequitably distributed across the city, then we are just repeating the mistakes of the past. So we want to be sure that as we pilot a certain type of technology or that we’re thinking about a deployment, that things aren’t simply limited to a central business district, aren’t simply limited to engaging those that have the time and energy or the know-how about how technologies might work, but that the benefits that might be felt by these types of technologies are really felt by the citizens, that we need to be most responsive to those that are vulnerable in a variety of different ways. In addition to making sure that what we’re doing here is not just to serve government, but something that can be explained back to the constituents that we’re accountable to.
Tanya: It sounds like what I’m hearing from you is that in the design process, cities have to make sure that it’s relevant to all residents, not just technology that’s deployed in, say, more resourced areas. But that also you’ve got to make sure that the residents that you’re trying to reach have the channels available and can access what you’re doing. And some of that speaks to this idea of digital divides and communities, which are a real issue.
Jacob: I was in a meeting yesterday and someone had mentioned that everyone has a smartphone in their pocket where they can access certain information about, say, when the next bus might arrive through an app that is linked up to our bus service. That isn’t the case. There’s still a divide for people who don’t have access to smartphones. There are still folks who are on limited data plans that might not use their data to access when the bus is coming. And so if we were to implement something like an LED sign that displayed when the next bus would be arriving, that might have more utility to someone who has less access to technology and doesn’t have that unlimited data plan, as opposed to someone who might be more well-off, who has unlimited access to information at their fingertips.
Rana: Going back to the earlier point around inclusivity and the process and some of the lessons learned thus far—one of the things around what to look out for also is how do you mitigate inequitable outcomes by making sure that you are addressing the inherent biases and being intentional about how some of the missing information can be vetted through data-quality checks and appropriate population representation? And that last item is key. And speaking with Jacob, he has a great example of how he and the city of Boston did that. I just want to highlight his community engagement efforts. And Jacob, obviously, can speak to it much better, but what I heard from him was that to make sure that there was adequate population representation, they even made arrangements for child care, for providing food during those community engagement sessions to help ensure that individuals with some of those constraints could also come to those sessions and represent themselves and their ideas. The point of this is really making sure that we don’t just talk about population representation, but are intentional about it and we make it happen in a way where that representation can take place and that can connect the dots with what Jacob was mentioning about some of the digital divide outcomes as well.
Tanya: Jacob, Rana is talking about your Boston Beta Blocks. Tell us a bit more about that. How does that work?
Jacob: The Beta Blocks program is our way to open the door to companies and different types of researchers that may have a new type of technological intervention that they want to deploy in the city, or from an internal city department that says, “I’m considering putting out an RFP or procuring a certain type of technology, and I want to figure out what the best type of technology is and the parameters by which we should procure that technology.” And so we established zones in the city of Boston, about three or four blocks in radius. One in Chinatown, which is pretty close to a downtown core. One in Codman Square in Lower Allston, which are a bit further away from downtown. And we established these zones as our testing ground where things could be tried out for a few months and then would be taken away. And during that time period, before and after, we would have a constant feedback loop of meeting with community members and different organizations in the area about whether those types of technologies were functioning as they were pitched to us, how community members felt about them, what our policy should be around data management and advertising, and other things [like] privacy, so that we can be sure that these types of pilots were really informed by the communities that occupy the area around where we’re testing out new types of technology.
Tanya: So it sounds like you were very intentional about wanting to engage as much of the community as possible in that feedback loop when Rana talks about, providing child care and things like that. What happens, though, in the tricky situation where you’re getting feedback that maybe doesn’t support the technology? People saying, we really don’t want this, but thank you anyway. That’s got to be an important yet uncomfortable space to be in.
Jacob: It really isn’t uncomfortable to us. The beauty of us being the government that’s responsive to our constituents is we wanted to deploy these pilots while being completely technology agnostic. So while we have a representative from the company that made that technology at one of our meetings or someone else said this is a good idea worth pursuing, ultimately, if the response from the citizens was we didn’t understand the value of that intervention or we didn’t necessarily like the way that technology operates, that’s wonderful feedback for us to take because ultimately our aim is not to have that technological intervention be successful, it’s to ensure that if we’re procuring something that is going to move citywide or scale up, we want to be sure that it’s really well informed by what our citizens think and how something will operate on a day-to-day once we expand it beyond these testing zones.
Tanya: And these three testing zones, are they demographically different? I mean, I assume you’ve strategically chosen them because they represent different types of communities.
Jacob: They are very different in nature—one being close to downtown, but an area where the primary language spoken is not English, which is true of a lot of Boston. Another area that’s a bit further from transit and so you get a little bit less of pedestrian activity. One area that’s a bit close to Harvard campus. You get a mix of a large institutional player next to a residential community. We wanted to find these areas also that were something that we could say could serve as a case study for other areas in the city. If we’re choosing a neighborhood, Main Street with small local retailers, there are other parts of the city that might also have a similar built environment, sidewalk widths, the same level of demographic profile, and things like that.
Rana: And Tanya, one of the outcomes of these processes, even if the constituent feedback might not be positive, is the fact that when you think about smart cities, you really have to think about it as a journey. It’s not a sprint. This type of engagement creates a transparent process, and it achieves two key purposes. Through this process the constituents, the residents are engaged. They are getting educated on some of these initiatives, the technologies. They are getting more and more equipped, if you will, in that context. And then secondly, this two-way engagement is building trust whereby I would believe that they would be open in the future to work with Jacob, to work with other cities, and such agencies for their own success.
Tanya: How do you measure what you’re doing? How do you assess that the inclusiveness that you think you’re having is actually happening, Jacob?
Jacob: It’s a really tough question to answer. But if we set our intentions from the start of a project like this very clearly and we closely associate what we are doing with other planning processes, there’s a resilience policy and plan that has been put together by our other aspects of city government that focus a lot on equity. We want to be sure that we are taking everything that they put together and incorporating it into the processes and the ways that we’re doing things. But at the outset, it’s simply just making sure that we’re not doing things in the old way that might have perpetuated those systems of inequitable distribution of resources, or not necessarily talking to the public about the back end of how decisions are made, and making sure that we’re just trying to open things up as much as possible. Sometimes it’s creating new mechanisms for ensuring that that equity exists. So, if you’re talking from a data-management perspective, we’ve been discussing whether a third-party organization should be set up to own some of the data that these types of technologies are creating so that that entity could then be managed in a more democratic way. And so that’s an aspect that we’re getting at where they’re best practices from other cities about ways to democratize how that information is shared, and to also determine whether certain information should never be collected in the first place so that we then don’t have to worry about those issues.
Rana: I concur with Jacob, given the complexity of it. But if I take it at a higher level of abstraction, beyond just the equity and inclusivity piece, there are some attributes that many of the local governments are trying to look at in some fashion. And let me use a concrete example from probably about three years ago that Jacob might be aware of as well. The US Department of Transportation issued the Smart City Challenge Grant and I believe multiple cities applied. Many of the applications were trying to address this issue of how do you measure? And there were some ideas in that regard that came through in those applications. One I remember, for example, is from the city of Columbus, where they identified two or three different neighborhoods where the infant mortality was higher, and the specific objective was how to reduce infant mortality in those three neighborhoods by an appropriate use of technology, along with access for pregnant women to better health care, to safe, timely, and reliable transportation options, and then measure if that access to appropriate and timely health care is actually having an impact on the reduction of infant mortality rates. So that’s one way of measuring, both addressing inclusion and use of technology and physical assets like buses, etc. to get to an objective. But I just want to reiterate Jacob’s point. There is a before state and after state, but at the same time, some of these are more qualitative than quantitative, and establishing that open line of communication and trust and education with the residents is a measure in and of itself to make progress.
Tanya: So obviously cities can and should, in your view, be prioritizing this inclusivity. What are the levers that governments can pull to help incentivize the private sector to also prioritize inclusive innovation?
Jacob: In some ways we want to be sure that, especially if you’re creating a product that is something that ultimately government is your goal customer [for], that there should be an openness and willingness to work with governments and with the public at large on ensuring that you understand our decision-making, you understand the problems that we’re trying to solve so that you’re not talking a different language or trying to answer different questions. If we can put together a set of questions and a framework about the boxes in which a company should attempt to play and attempt to develop products through R&D, that is helpful. Whereas, other times we sometimes feel companies might be pitching us products that are mismatched to how the actual decision-making is happening or the actual challenges that we’re trying to solve.
Rana: Couldn’t agree more. I believe that the governments obviously are dealing with a lot of issues in terms of mission and service, and private sector and academia can help. To the extent that there is a strategic road map, there is a set of guidelines that doesn’t stifle innovation, but at least provides a vision statement, provides some boundaries or the protocols of how to get there—that would incentivize the private sector, academia, others to come in and provide their suggestions. It’s easier then for the government to figure out which ones to focus on versus which ones are not really within that framework of that strategic road map, at least for the near future. And in doing so, [by] operationalizing one key aspect of this whole journey, the government really can convene various ecosystem partners. I mean, it has the power to do so and doing it through much more of a managed lens obviously is much more productive.
Tanya: Jacob, I’m wondering, for you, what would an ideal partnership look like if you’re looking at this public-private partnership? What does that look like?
Jacob: Some from the private side, an entity that wants to be nimble and creative and really responsive to some of the issues that we face is really important. And folks that come to us with some degree of knowledge or understanding or history, even if it’s a new company that’s just started up, but folks that work there, that have an understanding about some of the challenges that are being faced and the constraints, because a lot of this is not just about buying a product or a system or a software, but figuring out how that’s maintained within the apparatus. A very slow-moving behemoth of governance can be quite difficult. And then understanding some of the ultimate issues that will have to handle. So if someone is pitching us on some camera technology, if they mention that they’ve already been talking to or reading things that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been putting out on ensuring that people’s civil liberties are being respected, that might make me feel more at ease as opposed to someone that simply glosses over things that I know will come up for me in a more political context. And so those are the types of understandings that would be really helpful.
Tanya: That’s a really good point. And you, of course, are speaking from the perspective of you as an individual and your department and your city really putting this inclusivity as a priority. But Rana, if there are other leaders in municipalities that are looking at this and they’re not at that level yet, if they’re just kind of grasping this idea of inclusivity, where do those cities start? What are the questions they have to ask themselves and what are the steps that that they should be thinking about taking?
Rana: Number one: When they are assuming those roles, they probably would come in with some vision and do that alongside some of the other accomplishments of many of the other cities—and obviously Boston has done extremely well in this regard—but there are examples everywhere, in the US and globally as well. But in the US, Kansas City [has] their digital equity plan, for example, which provides some guidelines for the private sector to think about when they are proposing putting down fiber optics or providing Wi-Fi connectivity and figuring out what would be an equitable plan in this regard in conjunction with a city. When you start thinking about issues around school students and if the school system is providing homework that you need online access for, and if, let’s say X percentage of that population does not have broadband or any type of Wi-Fi access or internet access at home, how do you address that problem? So just being cognizant of those issues and looking into some of these best practices across various cities is one place to start. The second place is being intentional about what does she or he mean by inclusive leadership, and what really is the, quote unquote, leverage of smart technologies in regard to that overall strategy? Because we know it is easy to get into a situation where implementing the technology without a bit of a broader intentional thinking around it might actually hinder some of the efforts rather than help their constituents whom they’re meant for to begin with it.
The possibilities are huge and this is one where I do see that bringing an ecosystem together is essential, and that is hard. I acknowledge that. But that also would enable us to address the complex issues that we as residents, as citizens are facing today. The more engagement we have with our governments, the more of a collaboration type of effort, the success would be more. And it behooves that to be a two-way engagement. It’s not just expecting the government to address the need, but also how do I engage with my government to participate in that process? That is a two-way street. The government meets us halfway through in that regard, through channels of communication, technologies, processes. But we also have to make sure that as residents and citizens, we engage in that process.
Tanya: Rana Sen leads Deloitte’s Smart Cities efforts and Jacob Wessel is the city of Boston’s public realm director.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Insights In Depth. We’ve got more in-depth conversations with the people who are building the future right now in some of the most exciting developments at the intersection between technology and humanity. In this series, you’ll find out more about the future of the factory, work, mobility, health, and digital reality. You can subscribe to Insights In Depth wherever you get your podcasts so you won’t miss a single episode.
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