There is much discussion about cities becoming smarter, but becoming smarter is only part of what we should be aiming to achieve. Cities need to change in many ways to accommodate the influx of people during the 21st century.
Fortunately there’s a revolution occurring in how our urban spaces are conceived, created, and inhabited. This revolution is much less about the physical matter of cities – the parks, roads, and apartments - and much more about how the city and its inhabitants communicate with each other. This shift touches traditional planning, design, and governance fields, among others, and is propelled forward by an explosion of digital technology and data. This movement is gaining steam but its potential is still largely unrealized. It can make cities more equitable and extraordinary. If we are not careful it can also scar our societies with deep divisions.
Smart city initiatives have often been associated with large-scale centralized technologies provided by private industry for a government’s benefit. IBM’s Smart Cities brand typifies this conception. However, this is only a fraction of the ways in which cities are utilizing technology and data to become more nimble, precise, and effective.
For example, the collision of location aware devices, denser urbanization, and transportation planning are pushing personal automobiles towards relics of the 20th century. As a result, for most urban residents cars will become pure status symbols, providing limited utility when compared with alternatives.
In many cities there are a handful of car services that use smart phones to give an exact arrival time and will pick you up in a matter of minutes from anywhere in the city (Uber, Lyft, Sidecar). In addition, many cities have hourly car, scooter and bike rentals (Zipcar, Car2go, Scoot, Citi Bike); real time public transit information (Next Bus); and an increased desire for bike and pedestrian mobility (WalkScore).
A diverse ecosystem is forming giving many viable transportation choices to individuals. The changes in urban transportation describe just one of the many shifts occurring throughout cities. Businesses, governments, NGOs, and individuals are transforming themselves to provide and receive city services in a digitally enabled world. Strengthening relationships between these actors through the quick and accurate transfer of information is good for individuals, organizations, and the networks they area a part of.
Smart isn’t the only concept we should aspire to when discussing the future of cities– open is just as critical. When I say open I mean the legal, political, business, and technological infrastructure that allows people, and in particular governments and citizens, to share information and data with little to no friction. This applies to both digital information as well as the digital tools used to process this information. Innovation and progress often occurs when people come in contact with new experiences and ideas that they can modify and appropriate. This has historically been a strength of cities due to their cosmopolitan nature – as indicated through correlations of patents and GDP. And this asset should be embraced even more in the digital era.
However, in order to reach its full value, open must mean open to all. This touches upon the divide that has formed between the digital haves and have-nots. Without the necessary tools to access open data and information, it is in fact closed or at best only partially open. By limiting the number of people that have access to technology and thus information, we are limiting the possible ideas and innovations that could enrich our society. Some may consider smart phones and computers luxuries, but they are in fact necessary to participate in the conversations of a modern digitally literate society
Similar to democracy, openness is never finished, but instead an ongoing process. Simply decreeing that systems and information are now “open” and assuming that innovation or transparency immediately follows is a simplistic approach. Cultivating openness requires well-managed tools, regulations, and processes in addition to cultivating a general cultural outlook.
So how might we get to smarter more open cities? We need to use design thinking - which is the ability to solve problems by synthesizing disparate elements and ideas skillfully, beautifully, and empathetically. Design thinking crafts most of our daily experiences and gives higher-level purpose, relationships, and meaning to the objects we touch, the environments we inhabit, and the processes we participate in. It is often interdisciplinary.
Design thinking has the ability to synthesize and match the explosion of digital tools with complex real world problems. These problems are sometimes referred to as wicked problems for their lack of clear boundaries or ideal solutions. Making progress on them will truly make our cities smarter. In addition design thinking has the ability to push us towards more open cities because it can consider why in addition to how when used to problem solve. If we want to make cities more open – and reap the benefits that that openness creates – we need to be able to ask both of these questions.
It is, however, important to make a distinction between design thinking and the professions we place under the umbrella of design. Many professionals besides those we consider designers can and do engage in design thinking - for example policy makers, entrepreneurs, engineers, and planners. And in many instances people we call designers end up being little more than widget makers (which significantly underutilizes their skills!). The point being that the approach, not the title, is important.
Solving our cities’ problems in the 21st century won’t come from singular answers, but instead pluralistic, networked, and ongoing approaches, such as the new transportation solutions mentioned earlier. We need to design cities where effective communication rather than control is prioritized. If we can do that, we’ll be well on our way to the smart open cities that we need.
Reed Duecy-Gibbs is a designer and urbanist as well as a former Fulbright Scholar and co-founder of OpenUrban, a non-profit web platform for sharing information on urban development. He is currently a fellow at Code for America in San Francisco.