A Fireside Chat with Debra Lam, Incoming Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation Managing Director

by Chris Thayer

Debra Lam (via Chandler Crowell Photography)

At January 26th’s IPaT Town Hall, CUI Director Dr. Jennifer Clark sat down with Debra Lam, lately of Pittsburgh fame and now the Institute for People and Technology’s new Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation Managing Director. Previously Debra led the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance, which was in charge of technology, sustainability, and performance of the city government. In this fireside chat, Dr. Clark asked Debra about her vision for smart cities, the collaborative potential between government and research institutions, and the potential impact of the changing national political climate on local efforts. This article is a transcript of that interview.

JC: For those of you that don’t know, I’m Jennifer Clark. This is Debra Lam, who we’re welcoming today. Debra is coming from Pittsburgh, where she was in charge of what was called the Innovation and Performance Team at the City of Pittsburgh, so when we found out that Debra was moving to Atlanta, the brainstorm we had was “What if we had the person who actually did so much in Pittsburgh on the City side of the city-university partnership come to Georgia Tech and help us manage the University side of our city-university partnership here in Atlanta?”

Some of you have read some of the discussions about Uber, and how Uber came to Pittsburgh to pilot its autonomous vehicle technologies. Actually, Pittsburgh has also developed — Debra developed — an Inclusive Innovation Plan for Smart Cities.  

So, I wanted to start by asking Debra a couple of questions, picking up a bit on what Beth just said about the changing political environment. Some people have the thought that with the changing political environment, cities generally, and Smart Cities in particular, may fall off the radar. But there are other people who argue that cities have been leading urban innovation from the ground up for many years. As someone on the front line, how do you feel about that? What’s your argument for being an optimist?

DL: Thank you, Jennifer. First of all, I’d like to thank you, all of you, for giving me a very warm welcome. I think all of us here — I’m a huge advocator for city empowerment and just see that cities are on the ground and accountable from a purely operational standpoint, in terms of just day to day operations like cleaning the streets and fixing the streetlights, right on to managing citizen accountability and responsibilities like that. So that makes us really on the thrust of not only trying to deliver, but delivering well. And being on that forefront, I think that’s an exciting place to be because the scale is easier to deliver on, and the sensitivities of being on the ground makes us more accountable. Accordingly I’ve been a firm advocate of the idea that it’s great that there are these great international actors, and great national actors, but whatever happens at the international and national levels, cities are still going to be at that front-lines position. Earlier, we talked about how cities have moved forward, proving their potential repeatedly — and it shows that, I think, whatever happens at this national climate means that we’re still going to lead the way forward.

JC: City-university partnerships are emerging as one of the key vehicles for designing smart cities and developing the systems and platforms essential for optimizing urban systems and expanding access and building opportunity. What do you think technology-focused universities like Georgia Tech bring to this enterprise? What are key roles that universities can (or possibly) should play?

DL: So, first of all, are people aware of the MetroLab Network? Do you guys know what it is?

No? No, okay. So, for those those that aren’t familiar, the MetroLab Network is a national partnership of almost forty cities and more than forty universities across the country that have committed themselves to doing applied research. Basically, trying to matchmake urban challenges with real expertise coming from a university and applying them on a wider scale. We started with our own Metro21 Partnership when I signed Memoranda Of Understanding with Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. And that partnership really brought research to City Hall — it basically created an R&D Department within the City of Pittsburgh, which had never existed. We had everything from internships to semester-long projects to graduate research projects to faculty-sponsored grants, all funnelling into City operations to be applied for improvements in decision-making and performance. And that was really, I would say, a turning point in how we thought about innovation, because it allowed us to essentially decrease the risk of trying new things, because we have this university partnership, and to fast-track some of these innovations into City operations. And then from that partnership, we expanded it and launched MetroLab Network at the White House a couple years ago, during Smart Cities Week. And today, it’s transpired into that collection of forty-plus University-City partnerships, two of which Georgia Tech and Georgia State are also involved, and Jennifer is in the lead here in the City of Atlanta.

JC: We were talking earlier about Debra’s thinking about a Smart Cities ecosystem, and articulating how we should be thinking about the different pieces of a Smart Cities ecosystem. I wonder if you couldn’t share a little bit about what you think about that?

DL: First of all, I think this is an evolving space, and I think it’s new and growing space. What I found really great, and one of the reasons why I thought it was a great match to come to Georgia Tech, was that there was just a wealth of expertise all around Georgia Tech. And I thought, there’s so much we need to learn in terms of expertise. I really think of Smart Cities as a bigger ecosystem that involves a lot of different parts in collaboration in order to hit some alternate goals. In this ecosystem, there are certain resources or inputs that’s required in any context. These inputs could involve anything from data to technology, software to infrastructure — these are your basic components that cities are constantly looking at in terms of resources that are required to build a Smart City. But then these inputs require processes in order to be utilized. These processes involve new ways to improve efficiency, new ways to engage the public, whether it is for stakeholder engagement or innovative financial or business models, to think about how to find or procure these inputs, that technology or data. There are these processes that could become better or more efficient, or could really, really be more inclusive in thinking about where and how to serve the public, or different sectors of the community. But once you get into pursuing these different inputs and these process improvements, they ultimately lead to: Why do we do Smart Cities, at the end of the day? What is the ultimate goal of Smart Cities?

To me, Smart Cities is ultimately to improve the quality of life for residents. You can think of it as increased resilience, you can think of it as increased sustainability, you can think about it as increased equality, an increasingly just society — all those are goals that we’re striving for. There are certain inputs, resources that we need, processes that we can improve, but the reason why we are going towards a Smart City and all of us are collectively contributing, doing our part, is because we want to make a better world. Call it whatever you want, but that’s basically it. And that’s why I think that as part of the Smart Cities ecosystem, it is central that we are collaborative and integrative in our approaches. It’s hard to put people or areas into a specific box per se, but there are some of us that have great expertise in inputs, whether we are experts in sensors or technologies or data, and there are some who are really heavily involved in processes like stakeholder engagement or different ways of making financial models, and then there are some that are heavily involved in looking at what a just society looks like, or a resilient city looks like. Together, we, and I can say ‘we’ as Georgia Tech, really are formulating a true Smart City ecosystem, with players in all kinds of roles. That’s what makes Georgia Tech really powerful, to me. When we put all that together, we can create a really good narrative of what the Smart Cities should be, and how we could be on the forefront of driving Smart Cities — not just for the City of Atlanta, but for cities all over the world. Thank you, and I’m really glad you’re here.



Flexible Work, Flexible Work Spaces: The Emergence of the Coworking Industry in US Cities

by Thomas Lodato and Jennifer Clark

It is well established that flexible labor markets have changed work practices in the US. However, much less is known about how flexible work practices have produced and are producing flexible workspaces. Our research on coworking spaces illustrates how labor market flexibility has not only defined new employment practices but also created an emerging industry of coworking firms that provide workspaces — and workplace services — to a growing cohort of American workers for whom flexibility is a occupational norm rather than an occasional career condition.

Since the 1980s, economic geographers and industrial and labor relations scholars have documented how flexible work practices led to the reorganization of external and internal labor markets, redistribution of work processes, and renegotiation of employment regulations. These changes have affected how firms make strategic decisions about the spatial division of labor within the firm and how they deploy localized assets (work spaces) to manage an increasingly flexible workforce.

In our research we have constructed a database of 662 active coworking spaces within the continental United States.  From this sample, we analyzed the spatial distribution of coworking firms across the US.  From the set of 662 coworking spaces, we then created a geographically proportional subsample of 116 spaces to research more detailed information on the offerings, business models, and characteristics of coworking firms. Below we report our initial empirical findings.

Defining Coworking

First, defining coworking firms has been an empirical challenge for researchers. In an early study, Clay Spinuzzi argued that coworking — as a space — physicalizes the community and professional network many workers have been missing as freelancers, small business owners, and remote or contract workers. Here, we shift the approach to look at coworking through economic terms and focus on what coworking firms provide users.  In other words, we define coworking firms by how and in what ways they commodify workspace as a service. The table below defines the four key value propositions we identified through our analysis of the firms in our dataset: 1) Space-as-a-Service; 2) Community, 3) Professional Network, and 4) Work-Life Balance.  In our research, 100 percent of coworking firms provided 1) Space as a Service and 95 percent of coworking firms provided 2) Community. As a consequence we consider these two value propositions defining characteristics of the industry in its present form.

Value Proposition Description
Space-As-A-Service Access to affordable office space and office infrastructure (WiFi, furniture, HVAC, mailboxes, etc.)
Community Access to other workers who can provide important-yet-missing social interaction for freelancers, remote workers, contract workers, and small businesses
Professional Network Access to a network of both potential peers and clients, and access to opportunities to learn best practices and new skills, as well as find investment and new business opportunities
Work-Life Balance Access to a work style that allows for a better balance between the demands of a personal and professional identity

Mapping Coworking: Flexible Work in Cities

The first major finding from this research is that coworking is an urban phenomenon. Of the 662 spaces in our database, only one space is located outside of a US metro region. The vast majority of the remaining 661 spaces are located in major metro areas across the United States (see table and map).

We found coworking firms concentrated in large metro regions. This stands to reason because coworking firms, like temporary employment firms, will concentrate in places with large labor markets.  We tested the hypothesis that coworking firms were concentrated in places with a significant presence of “creative class” workers — the high-tech workers associated with narratives about workers who choose flexibility rather than permanent employment relationships.

We also looked at whether population growth corresponded with the rise of coworking spaces in a given region. The table below presents our initial findings.

Top 10 Metropolitan Statistical Areas with High Concentrations of Coworking Locations and Their Percent of “Creative Class” Occupations, 2016
Metropolitan Statistical Area Number of Coworking Locations Population, 2015 estimate (ranking)* Population Growth 2010-2015* Creative Class Location Quotient** Super Creative Core Location Quotient**
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 65 20,182,305 (1st)




1.12 1.10
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 62 4,656,132 (11th)


7.15% 1.27 1.34
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 39 3,733,580 (15th)


8.26% 1.20 1.36
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 38 13,340,068 (2nd) 3.86% 1.06 1.08
Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 32 4,774,321 (10th)


4.58% 1.21*** 1.10***
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 32 6,097,684 (6th)


7.61% 1.48 1.53
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 28 9,551,031 (3rd)


0.84% 1.05 0.98
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 23 2,814,330 (19th)


10.17% 1.16 1.16
Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN 18 1,830,345 (36th)


9.21% 0.99 0.82
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 17 5,710,795 (9th)


7.67% 1.08 1.03
MSA Averages# 2 329,894 1.62%†† 0.92 0.92‡‡
*Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015, Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Release Date: March 2016
**Combination of reported counts for occupation categories originally specified by Florida (2012) and later modified (Florida 2016) [see footnote 6 & 7]
***Occupation data collected for the Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH Metropolitan NECTA.
#MSA Averages are calculated based on data available for all MSAs (LSAD M1), except for occupational reporting. Creative class and super creative core location quotients includes a combination of MSAs and NECTAs (LSAD M5).
Average number of coworking spaces includes MSAs where no coworking spaces were recorded. Actual calculated average value mean is 1.67 (median: 0; mode: 0).
††Median MSA population change: 0.86%
Median creative class location quotient: 0.89
‡‡Median super creative core location quotient: 0.87

We concluded from this analysis that neither the presence of creative class occupation nor the pace of population growth in a given metro area fully explains the growth of coworking firms.  The map below provides some additional support for our conclusion: coworking concentrates in urban labor markets, but variation across urban labor markets has yet to be fully explained.

picture1Our second major finding is that the coworking industry is comprised of two types of firms: single-location firms and multi-sited franchises. This is consistent with the practices that emerged in the temporary employment services industry where large firms such as Adecco and Kelly set up global franchise operations while local temporary service firms emerged in individual cities working in competition and in collaboration with the larger, multi-sited firms in the industry.

Coworking Firms and Number of Individual Operating Locations (Total), 2016
  Number of Coworking Firms Number of Coworking Locations
Total Firms 468 662
Firms with one site 418 418
Firms with between 2 and 5 sites 39 119
Firms with more than 5 sites 11 125


Geographic Coverage of Large Coworking Firms, 2016
Firm Name Active Spaces Within US Geographic Coverage
WeWork 48 National
Impact Hub 15 National
The Cove 11 Mid-Atlantic & Northeast
Industrious 10 Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South, & Mid-West
ActivSpace 10 Pacific Division
Make Offices 10 Mid-Atlantic & Mid-West

Coworking is still a new industry so we do not yet have evidence of how and in what ways the large firms will interact with the single site locations and whether they will compete on the basis of service offerings. We did find that most coworking spaces are private firms that allow membership-based access.  Our assessment of the variation in offerings by firm versus by site indicates that there is little variation in core services at present.  Further research is planned to ascertain whether variation in core services is, in fact, driven by variation in the labor market (geography) rather than competitive firm strategies.

Frequency of Common Coworking Offerings by Firm and Location, 2016
Coworking Offering By Firm (Percent) By Individual Site (Percent)
Office Infrastructure


78 (100%) 116 (100%)
24/7 Access 60 (77%) 88 (76%)
Furniture 76 (97%) 114 (98%)
Wireless Network Access 77 (99%) 115 (99%)
Mailbox and/or Mail Services 45 (58%) 69 (59%)
Printing 61 (78%) 99 (85%)
Conference/Meeting Rooms 74 (95%) 112 (97%)
Meeting Tools 61 (78%) 98 (84%)
Coffee and/or Tea 73 (94%) 111 (96%)
Kitchen(ette) Access 50 (64%) 86 (74%)
(Social Interaction)
73 (94%) 110 (95%)
Professional Development##
(Professional Network)
54 (69%) 90 (78%)
Work-Life Support#
(Work-Life Balance)
49 (63%) 79 (68%)
 #Social Interaction refers to language on websites that refers to the benefit of being near other workers, either in terms of camaraderie or collaboration.
##Professional Development includes informal learning (e.g. lunch-and-learns), professional panels, networking events (e.g. meet-ups), and members-only events
###Work-Life Support refers to various listed amenities such as relaxation areas, gym access, bike storage, dog-friendliness, and wellness programs (i.e. on-site yoga or massage).






The Actually Existing Analog City

by Chris Thayer, Center for Urban Innovation

In 2014, my CUI colleague, Taylor Shelton wrote an article entitled the “Actually Existing ‘Smart City’,” which discussed examples of the idealized smart city, typically in the form of generating and installing new technologies and forms of data-gathering, which may be intended to support a particular civic purpose or might also apparently be for the sake of the technology itself. The article problematized the exclusively technical orientation of much of smart cities practice, but overlooked a deeper question that many researchers and policymakers in the emerging industry have ignored: what is, and more importantly, what should be the definition of this “smart city” that is thought to perhaps “actually exist” among current cities?

When such a question is proposed, of course answers will vary based on the background and experiences of the expert consulted. Mostly commonly, the smart city is held to be an urbanized district — not necessarily the entire city itself — with closely integrated technologies, such as sensor arrays and other data-collection tools and hi-tech efficiency boosts to existing systems. Those with a more public-minded bent may bring up civic hackathons and the ideal of greater connection between governments and the governed, though both the technological know-how (discussed here by CUI contributor Thomas Lodato) required to participate and the sometimes moribund nature of governments  in an era of neoliberal devolution makes the enthusiasm for such efforts perhaps misplaced. For those with an eye to the oft-neglected physicality of government provision, international smart cities development calls into sharp relief the risk of prioritizing “hot” (and often invisible) smart city interventions with expensive, time-consuming, unpopular infrastructure construction, even as other experts call for additional infrastructure emplacements in order to support further smart city developments. However, these approaches seldom consider the existing structure and nature of the cities upon which these new technologies are grafted.

This is hardly the first age in which an influx of new technologies, driven forward by commercial interests, drastically reshaped urban life as we know it. Certain changes are well-known and oft-discussed, such as industrialization’s reshaping and intensification of the density and bustle of city life, coupled with new high-quality steel, inspired everything from the dumbbell tenement to the beginnings of the city planning profession. Likewise, we are still feeling the ongoing effects of the changes begun a scant handful of decades later, when the personal automobile began exponentially accelerating the streetcar-driven stirrings of suburbanization, creating previously unimaginable, and perhaps fundamentally ungovernable, urban sprawls. Indeed, not only did cities create the original information technology of writing, as Townsend noted, but they were also undone by technology — and government mismanagement thereof — as early as 1788 B.C.E. In Ur (in Mesopotamia), a poorly-executed government crackdown on predatory lending practices (enabled by the financially sophisticated cuneiform-on-clay contracts of the time) resulted in major international trade haltage and an accompanying permanent loss in city wealth and status from which it was unable to ever recover. The pace and extent of technological integration has only increased since those earliest known foibles. Therefore, we must be cautious when considering our responses to — and integration of — the increasingly speedy, invisible, and powerful technological interventions associated with the current “actually existing” concept of the smart city, and our redefinition of the same, and the qualities of the city that currently exists in fact.


Quantization noise: Information lost in digitalization. From Wikipedia

In this tension between the practical city as it stands today and the technological improvements the “smart city” concept advocates, we may see an echo of the divide between analog and digital signals. Indeed, much like cities, analog signals transmit information via continuous change. Cities aren’t finite, as digital signals are, and neither are they degradation-proof. What’s more, cities are capable of infinite variations, making the addition of “noise” all but guaranteed when attempting to digitize them, just like any other organic source of information. What remains to be seen is if the replicability of digital signals will carry over into the digital city — will we at last be able to see smooth, lossless policy transfers between these new technological marvels, or will their signals be blurred with metaphorical quantization noise, their efficiency reduced? The advocates of “smarter” cities must take care that their playground’s unique profile not be lost to homogenizing forces of universalized best-practices in the name of transnational interoperability divorced from practical necessity. Part of that mandate necessitates integrating all the functions of a currently existing city into the “smart” plan, not just the mechanical.


The recent PCAST report on smart cities echoes the industry-wide trend of smart city proponents privileging the technological over the social and exhibiting disinterest towards equity concerns and established urban studies fields in favor of “gadgets” and new datasets. Smart cities’ technocratic bent parallels the auto orientation of 1940s sprawl into suburbia, and is in particular similarly being pushed by the titans of industry best positioned to benefit, with little regard for the potential for scattered, incoherent “city-let” fragments left in the wake of the improved “urban development districts” (eerily similar to other “district” approaches that have floundered previously) they advocate. The reformers of the previous century — and it has been just about a century — also chased the City Efficient, though they had less sophisticated tools if no less enthusiastic a will. Without a careful consideration of what we do — and what we should — mean by the term “smart city,” however, we are liable to repeat their mistakes as we favor rapid progress over beneficial progress. It is wise to recall that, in some conceptions, government exists to “polish off” the rougher edges of the market, and that it is unlikely the watchman can watch itself in this instance — that is, to employ unmodified technological approaches taken directly from market solutions. Therefore, we must always keep in mind the need to broaden the definition of the smart city beyond the merely technical — indeed, perhaps directly into the kind of “education, healthcare, or social services“ delivery that PCAST handily dismisses.

Finally, in seeking a fuller definition we must consider how much of this smart city proposition — from the specific availability of data on up to the identification of the city as “smart” — is just so much more booster-istic smoke and mirrors? City machines have been lying to their constituents for centuries, generally with the very best kinds of lies — things that are technically true and also completely devoid of meaning. What’s more, one of the best ways to conceal something is to leave it out in the open, data dumped in the name of “openness” left in some forgotten corner languishing amongst so much more digital detritus, and it seems likely that many smart city transparency mandates — and smart city efforts in general — risk this eventual fate. This is where careful policy and outreach may step in for positive change, above and beyond the debatably effective civic hacking seen thus far. Despite Smart Cities author Anthony Townsend’s tidy definition of the smart city as a “[place] where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems,” in implementation it is not so simple. Even leading practitioners of smart city interventions such as sensor array testbeds and “sentient” homes have struggled to define this ambiguous term — and this difficulty need not be a negative. On the contrary, the moment of ambiguity that “smart city” is experiencing represents a unique opportunity to introduce intentionality to the definition and broaden it beyond its technocratic derivation. By remembering the lessons of our analog past — be it Mesopotamian or merely BetaMax in patina — we can shape a city that is not only “smart,” but truly wise in including the voices of and satisfying the core needs for all its citizens.


This article was originally written in response to a course assignment in a graduate course in urban policy analysis and practice offered in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy every Fall (PUBP 6604).

Smart Cities and National Innovation Policy: The #WHFrontiers Conference and the Future or Urban Innovation

by Jennifer Clark

Debra Lam speaking at the Local Frontiers Track, courtesy Next Pittsburgh

On October 13, 2016, President Obama hosted the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted the event with Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the City of Pittsburgh.  The event convened tracks focused on innovations across five domains defined by scale: the personal, the local, the national, the global, and the interplanetary.

For an economic geographer, this was a rare opportunity to observe a national government think strategically across scales and consider how innovation policy simultaneously operates within and across those geographic scales.  The challenge of how to analyze and understand the processes of innovation — including technology diffusion — across scales is central to the work of economic geography.  

There is also the additional challenge of coordinating policy — the role of the state — in facilitating the diffusion of scientific and technological innovation across scales.  This is a key concern of communities of scholars such as those associated with the Regional Studies Association, which focuses on the local, regional, national, supra-national regional, and global processes of policy design and diffusion. CUI’s Director, Jennifer Clark, has written extensively about the coordination of national and local and regional innovation policies.

The emphasis of the “local” track of the White House Frontiers Conference was the evolving opportunities that technologies provide for cities in terms of health, transportation, public safety, and civic engagement — all pillars of “smart cities.”

A key focus was on data and the need not only to generate more data but to better understand existing data and to gather, manage, curate, and provide access to data across domains and across platforms for communities and other stakeholders. This is, in part, a consequence of OSTP’s recent efforts to stimulate research networks and research questions geared toward an emergent US smart cities strategy through two key activities:  

  1. First, OSTP launched the MetroLab Network of 20+ city-university partnerships in September 2015 (of which Atlanta and Georgia Tech are founding members).  The MetroLab Network was modeled after the city-university partnership formed by Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh — Metro21 — focused particularly on partnering on the design, development, and deployment of transportation projects.
  2. Second, OSTP published the Technology and the Future of Cities Report in February of 2016.  At the Center for Urban Innovation, we have engaged the recommendations of the PCAST report both from an academic perspective and as fellow applied researchers active in the field.

The Frontiers Conference was in many ways an effort to highlight how investment and attention to science and technology policy has stimulated innovation over the past eight years and underscore that these investments are key to the sustained economic resilience of the national as well as urban and local economies.  Further, the Frontiers Conference highlighted the validity of an approach in which private, public, and academic researchers partner and collaborate on shared initiatives and clear goals.  

The Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships (AMP 1.0 and AMP 2.0) effort serves as an example of how private, public, and university partners can design policy interventions and then partner to implement them.  This “triple helix” approach to the national-scale design of policy and the regional-scale implementation of programs parallels the point made on this blog last week, asking if Is it Time for a North American Week of Cities and Regions to facilitate this work.

The series of PCAST reports on the role of technology in the economy and the meaning of technology for the country — particularly the breadth and coverage of these reports — is significant too.  The idea that technological change can drive not just the research agenda or an agency like the National Science Foundation but also influence the research and implementation priorities of agencies like the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Commerce — in a broad and coordinated way — changes the landscape of federal research spending on technology design and diffusion.

The Frontiers Conference showcased the economic and societal value of advances in science and technology and distributed innovation.  In other words, one key success factor is facilitating the distribution of innovations across the economy rather than siloed in the research and development labs of large companies and government facilities.  Those places make essential contributions as well, but the broad-based opportunities provided by new technology are distributed — both the data that fuels the applications and the technology and shapes the software and the engineering that optimizes the hardware.  Whether it is for health, public safety, transportation, economic development, or quality of life, technology diffusion crosses scales and domains.  The Frontiers Conference underscored the value of embracing a role for government that facilitates an interdisciplinary approach to innovation.

President Obama hosted the day-long Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon University, bringing together researchers, business leaders, technologists, philanthropists, local innovators, and students to discuss building U.S. capacity in science and technology. Among the attendees at the invitation-only White House Frontiers Conference were IPaT Executive Director Beth Mynatt and Georgia Tech Center for Urban Innovation Director Jennifer Clark.  Click here for a live stream of the event, here for an IPaT article about the Frontiers Conference, or check out the Twitter hashtag,  #WHFrontiers.


Introducing PARSE: Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments

by Carl DiSalvo

From MIT’s Internet of Things Course Announcement

The Smart City has been an idea in circulation for well over a decade. Now, due to a confluence of factors, certain aspects of the Smart City are quickly manifesting from plan to reality. Distributed sensor networks are being deployed in testbeds within selected cities across the nation to monitor a range of environmental conditions, including in Atlanta. Through social media, average citizens are providing a torrent of data about where they are, what they are doing, and how they are feeling. Video cameras are ubiquitous. What’s more, all of this data is increasingly being networked together, bundled into so-called dashboards.  The idea behind these dashboards, testbeds, and in many cases the data collection efforts themselves is that everyday people, as well as government service providers, will be able to use data this to inform themselves, to make better-decisions, to enhance their (and their clients’) lives, and to improve civic conditions. But how can such goals be accomplished?

The prevailing interest, for both researchers and residents, is to work towards articulating a diverse and equitable vision for the Smart City. There have been, and continue to be, plenty of sharp critiques of the idea of smart cities and its implementation. While not being naive, however, many dedicated researchers still believe that participatory research and co-design can contribute to equitable local instantiations of the Smart City by collectively discovering, documenting, and sharing issues and potentials with the technologies being developed and implemented in the pursuit of “smartness.”

In this spirit is a new project known as PARSE (Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments), which combines design and social science methods to investigate the technologies and services of Smart Cities and more generally what is known as “Civic IoT”—the use of Internet of Things technologies for public life. The project draws upon practices of participatory design to gather together community, municipal government, and industry stakeholders to collaboratively explore the issues and possibilities of distributed sensing in urban settings.

PARSE is comprised of a series of workshops, beginning in October of 2016 and running well into 2017. The workshops will move between locations in order to draw in a more diverse set of stakeholders, with each workshop focusing on a different location and community in Atlanta. The workshops will run approximately two hours each, during which participants will learn about the sensors being deployed in Atlanta as part of the MAPPD project, and then engage in hands-on design activities to create scenarios, use-cases, and service prototypes for the data expected to be generated from these new sensors. Along the way, participants are expected to surface and discuss concerns, ranging from those of privacy to equity and beyond.

The PARSE project exemplifies a kind of community-based design research. It is intended to provide applied, actionable outcomes to inform the subsequent roll-out of Atlanta as a fully-fledged Smart City. The project also contributes to important research questions about the public element of the Smart City ideal. Much of the research into Smart Cities, especially in fields such as human-computer interaction and communication studies, has looked to specific devices and systems. PARSE, by contrast, is oriented towards issues of engagement, and the ways in which design might contribute to forms of material participation in the context of Smart Cities. In particular, researchers are interested in identifying and analyzing alternative modes of civics engagement in the context of neoliberal and technocentric governments, and in theorizing new understandings of data that take into account both community data economies and the affective aspects of data collection and representation.

Of course, PARSE will not be the first project to do this kind work, and its design research draws from experts in the social sciences undertaking similar projects. For instance, the Citizen Sense project demonstrates how a hybrid design and social science approach to environmental monitoring can illuminate a range of possibilities, from more diverse sensor platforms to a more nuanced understanding of the interplay of human and nonhuman agencies in sensing.  Similarly, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) demonstrates a socially engaged approach to environmental monitoring and the possibilities of a civic science — a participatory approach to data collection for the purposes of influencing governmental decision-making.

By combining expertise in design and public policy, PARSE provides a unique contribution to the study of Smart Cities. In addition to comparative case studies and frameworks for analysis and assessment, PARSE aims to contribute design guidelines and use cases to inform both engineering and policy. Organizations such as the Helsinki Design Lab and Public Policy Lab have demonstrated the value of design and policy labs in generating strategies for cities. The PARSE team believes similar efforts are needed with regards to the issues and potentials of Smart Cities. Moreover, these efforts must be open and provide opportunities for meaningful, substantive engagement from diverse stakeholders in shaping what the Smart City is, or will be, if the Smart City is to be equitable, just, and sustainable. PARSE is intended as a step in that important direction.

100 Resilient Cities Initiative In Atlanta

by Emma French And Supraja Sudharsan

Setting Atlanta’s Resiliency Agenda

Last week the City of Atlanta launched its 100 Resilient Cities program (100RC) with a day-long agenda-setting workshop — the first step of an engagement process to develop a robust resilience strategy for the City. Atlanta was selected to be part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100RC program in May 2016 along with thirty-six other cities from around the world, together forming the one-hundred-cities’ cohort of 100RC. The selected cities, which span 6 continents and over 50 countries, receive financing to hire a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), as well as additional logistical and networking support.

Atlanta’s agenda-setting workshop, co-hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation, featured a forty-five minute presentation by 100RC President, Michael Berkowitz, a keynote address from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and four facilitated small group activities designed to gauge the participants’ understanding of resiliency and perceptions about Atlanta’s biggest long-term stresses and acute shocks. In addition to these activities, participants were asked to take a pre- and post-workshop online survey on changes in attitude. Students, faculty, and staff from Georgia Tech, including several researchers from CUI, attended the workshop, as both attendees and table facilitators.

What Makes a City Resilient?

Resilience may be defined in several ways depending on the system being studied and the actors involved, including ecological, organizational, or supply-chain system resilience, or resilience of a particular community or individual. In general, resilience refers to adaptation and/or recovery following a disruption to normal operations of a system (Bhamra, Ran et al.). In a forthcoming book chapter, CUI Director Jennifer Clark draws connections between urban resilience and innovation. In it, she writes “resilience speaks to the viability of complex systems to withstand and adapt to change.” For a city that encompasses complex economic, environmental, and social systems, a change or disruption could be in the form of acute shocks, such as flash floods, massive infrastructure failures, heat waves, and blizzards, or from expressions of long-term stresses, such as chronic water shortages, poverty, inequality, pollution, and unemployment.

With more than 50% of the world’s population living in urban areas and climate change acting as a multiplier of many of the above-enumerated shocks and stresses, the role of city government and other stakeholders in weathering these changes and building systems that can withstand and overcome adverse impacts of urbanization and climate change, and the associated social and economic challenges becomes paramount. The IPCC estimates funding requirements for climate-related adaptation efforts in developing countries to be in the order of seventy to one hundred billion dollars a year by 2050 (albeit with low confidence). A UNEP report, however, estimates this gap to be higher by 4-5 times by 2050. Therefore, support from public, private, and non-governmental organizations is crucial for building local capacity for resilience. Several programs such as the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, as well as transnational networks such as 100RC, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, the United Nations Human Settlement Program, and others provide support in the form of financing, information-sharing, and networking opportunities for cities. However, depending on their definition of “resilience” and their inclusion or exclusion of adaptation-related issues, the nature and type of support varies among the above organizations.

100RC defines resilience as the ability of a city to maintain essential functions and to evolve and emerge stronger in the face of acute shocks and chronic stresses. A resilient city, according to the Rockefeller Foundation, is one that is reflective of past experiences, resourceful, exhibits inclusiveness in decision-making, integrates different systems and institutions, is robust, redundant to accommodate disruption to services, and flexible to changing circumstances. Utilizing a City Resilience Framework (CRF, developed by Arup and the Rockefeller Foundation, See Fig. 1 below), the CRO plans interventions to address identified shocks and stresses that span some or all of the dimensions of the CRF. In Medellin, Colombia, for instance, tramlines added to supplement its gondola-based transit system improves the city’s resilience indicators across all of the four dimensions by providing redundancy, contributing to reduction in homicide rates, reducing transit time ,and enhancing social inclusion and integrating regions along the path of transit.

Fig 1: City Resilience Framework.The four primary dimensions are represented in gray and the drivers of these dimensions represented in yellow. These dimensions (drivers) are Health & Wellbeing (Meets Basic Needs, Supports Livelihoods & Employment, Ensures Public Health Services) , Economy & Society (Fosters Economic Prosperity, Ensures Social Stability, Security & Justice, Promotes Cohesive & Engaged Communities), Infrastructure & Environment(Provides Reliable Communications & Mobility, Ensures Continuity of Critical Services, Provides & Enhances Natural & Manmade Assets), and Leadership & Strategy (Promotes Leadership & Effective Management, Empowers a Broad Range of Stakeholders, Fosters Long-term & Integrated Planning).

The workshop emphasized several steps as vital to the 100RC initiative. These include the tracking and measurement of metrics in the implementation of the resiliency framework, networking with other member cities from across the world, and learning from their experiences. The implementation of the initiative itself is tied around engaging diverse stakeholders from the city and bringing together different perspectives on what resilience means. Planning and implementation of resilience initiatives is heavily dependent upon the ability of the CRO to work across government silos, bring together diverse stakeholders, and create a concrete plan for increasing the City’s resiliency based on pragmatic, local understanding of prevalent shocks and stresses. In light of the importance of this stakeholder engagement process, it is therefore imperative to evaluate the process of the first agenda-setting workshop that was organized by the 100RC initiative for the City of Atlanta last week, and assess its strengths and weaknesses for consideration towards future stakeholder- engagement processes. This is carried out below.  

Building Resiliency Through Public Engagement

Public engagement and participation are necessary for building the institutional capacity of cities (Healy 1997). Atlanta’s workshop last week was the first step in engaging the public in the process of creating a resiliency plan for the City. Feedback from participants and facilitators will be used to prioritize what shocks and stressors the CRO focuses on. During one of the activities, participants worked together to place a number of shocks and stresses on a four part grid to indicate the frequency/likelihood on the horizontal access increasing to the right, and impact on the vertical access increasing upward (see below). At the end of the activity each table shared their top three stresses and shocks with the whole group. Poverty/inequality, lack of social cohesion, lack of affordable housing, and lack of transit options were identified as a top chronic stressors by almost every group, while flooding, extreme temperatures, and infrastructure failures dominated the top acute shock lists.

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For one of the activities, participants worked together to place a number of shocks and stresses on a four-part grid to indicate the frequency/likelihood and the severity of impact of each challenge.

In the next activity each participant was given 12 stickers, which they placed on the City Resilience Framework diagram (see Figure 1 above) without discussing their choices with others–green stickers next to things the city is doing well, yellow stickers for things the city could do better, and red stickers next to things the city urgently needs to improve. At the table featured below, the green stickers were concentrated around ‘Fosters Economic Prosperity’ and ‘Ensures Public Health Services.’ There was a mix a yellow and red stickers under ‘Meets Basic Needs,’ and red clumps next to ‘Transportation’ and ‘Empowers a Broad Range of Stakeholders.’

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Participants placed stickers onto the City Resilience diagram to indicate things the city is doing well, things it could do better, and things it urgently needs to improve. (Left to right: Timothy Block, Enterprise Community Partners; Reese McCranie, Director of Communications at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport; Marshall Shepherd, Director of UGA’s Program for Atmospheric Sciences; Emma Tinsley, Fellow at the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Inc.; and Maria Azuri, Director of Programs of Immigrant Affairs, City of Atlanta).

Underscoring many of the discussions at the workshop was the recognition that the stresses and shocks facing Atlanta are subjective, varying significantly depending on where in the city you live or work, as well as the social and financial capital to which an individual or neighborhood has access. When planning the workshop, the City intentionally invited a mix of people from the private businesses, government offices, nonprofits, community organizations and academic institutions (see Fig. 2 below for the breakdown of registered guests by sector). Of the 160 people who were registered to attend, 44 were from government (28%), 42 from nonprofits (26%), 22 from academia (14%), 19 from business (12%), 16 were elected official (10%), 16 were community members (10%), and 1 person was from a faith-based organization (less than 1%). It should be noted that the authors do not know how many from each group actually attended.

Fig. 2: Breakdown of the participants who’d registered for the Atlanta Resilience Agenda-Setting Workshop.


During the last activity, participants identified stakeholders who were not in the room who they believe should be included in this planning process, such as students, members of the LGBTQ community, private sector representatives, and community members. One participant pointed out that the timing and location of the workshop (it was held at the Carter Center in Northeast Atlanta) may have prevented community members from attending if, for instance, they could not take work off on a Monday.

Global Knowledge Sharing and Local Empowerment

The 100RC initiative provides both opportunities and challenges for the City of Atlanta. Opportunities include the ability to allocate dedicated resources to identifying, tracking, and collaborating with diverse stakeholders to address the City’s vulnerability to shocks and stresses, and learning from, and sharing resources and knowledge with other cities around the world. The major challenges include enabling broad engagement in the political process by taking into account unequal access to resources, and empowering citizens to initiate collaborative problem-solving to address the issues they themselves have identified. Public participation is no longer just about hosting a public meeting to discuss already decided upon alternatives. It is about providing the public with data and resources to come up with their own solutions using their collective creativity and localized understanding of the problems.

In sum, each city has a very localized set of stresses and shocks, and the 100RC Network facilitates cities seeing how others are moving through this process of setting priorities. It enables the city to carve out a dedicated resource and hire a Chief Resilience Officer, and design and implement a resiliency plan. As it proceeds, there is a need to ensure that the subsequent data gathering, the indicators utilized for data gathering, and the resulting decision-making processes are representative and integrate the capacities and constraints of all relevant stakeholders in order to maximize the impact of planned interventions and to build inclusive and robust systems for a truly resilient Atlanta.  

Scaling The Smart City: Design, Deployment, and the MAPPD Project

By Jennifer Clark and Thomas Lodato

How do we build the Smart City?

This question is the central research focus of the MAPPD project (“mapped”), or the Multi-Array Phased Participatory Deployment. Both a practical and strategic endeavor, MAPPD is an ongoing research project and a city-university collaboration of the Georgia Institute of Technology and the City of Atlanta. Georgia Tech’s Center for Urban Innovation (CUI) and the Georgia Tech Research Institute are the university leads for the project with the support of the Georgia Tech’s Institute for People and Technology (IPaT) and the Public Design Workshop.  The City of Atlanta’s SMARTATL team has taken the implementation lead for the City.

The project focuses on understanding the various layers of enabling Atlanta’s Smart City design, from technology development to public policy and administrative practices to community and stakeholder engagement. Beyond charting and understanding how Smart City efforts progress, MAPPD is also an intervention itself, following and contributing to an extended case study of Smart City development.

Lessons from (and for) the Emerging Smart City Landscape

Globally, no shortage of projects and programs exist under the Smart City label, now numbering well into the hundreds. These efforts are geographically diverse, diverging “in some meaningful ways from the dominant imaginary that ‘smartness’ only resides in cities like New York and San Francisco.” As such, these efforts provide many lessons related to planning, development, and implementation that account for productive differences in the social, political, and cultural spheres where the efforts reside. From these projects, we have charted important trends and gaps that motivated the foundations of the MAPPD project. These foundations are:

  1. A phased technical deployment in order to increase opportunities for in-action learning, community engagement and responsiveness, and integration of ongoing technical improvements, while simultaneously reducing the implementation burden on participating organizations.
  2. A comprehensive administrative and technical strategy focused on interoperability that accounts for the necessary current and eventual need for systems to communicate in order to foster sustainable growth and resilient expansion over time.
  3. A fundamental commitment to engaging the community at large, and to integrating concerns originating in everything from planning to technical specifications in meaningful ways.
  4. A program that established policy around open data and open innovation in order to ensure both continued access and local and regional economic development.

Beyond these pillars, the goal of the MAPPD project is to document and analyze this approach to in order to develop a replicable programmatic approach to Smart Cities design and deployment.

Conceptual and Operational Foundations of MAPPD

In a comprehensive literature review of Smart City definitions, Albino, Berardi and Dangelico identify four shared themes that cut across definitions of a Smart City. The themes: 1) smart cities pair functional efficiency with “social and cultural development”; 2) smart cities foster new forms of economic development; 3) smart cities magnify human capital; and 4) smart cities are sustainable. As much as these authors identify a normative definition of a Smart City, they also illustrate the sprawling demands placed on Smart City projects and programs. Spanning domains from technical infrastructure to urban and regional economic development, projects often struggle to accommodate diverse agendas under a single umbrella. One strategy to attend to the vast interest in Smart Cities is to embark on projects that allow for progressive accumulation of technologies, engagements, and policies overtime rather than all at once.

An example of this approach is SmartSantander. The core feature of SmartSantander is the establishment of a city-wide testbed that allows multiple parties to develop applications, efforts, and projects within a single platform and program. The project began with a clear strategic framework that was accompanied by a technical architecture for development. In combination, the framework and architecture provide a platform for testing, validation, and prototyping. Notably, SmartSantander set out to include the community at large as well as firms, yet offered no formalized policies related to open data and innovation. Additionally, SmartSantander had no specific accommodations for how systems would interoperate, instead relying on developers to handle this on an ad-hoc basis.

As just one example, SmartSantander is illustrative of a pattern in Smart City projects. The pattern is to develop a Smart City on a project-by-project basis. In producing isolated projects, Smart City efforts passively argue that the city is a collection of discrete and distinct systems that assemble into a mega-system, leaving integration to happen in use or after-the-fact. In MAPPD, we are explicit about integration, and this begins by being intentional about how any individual project develops with what is a programmatic approach to Smart Cities design, development, and deployment.

The four key elements of MAPPD are:

1) Phased Deployment
north-ave-sensor-boxAn central technical component of MAPPD is the development of a sensor array called the Campus Array Node (CAN) system, an environmental and mobility-sensing platform under development across Georgia Tech. Rather than develop the system in full, release it, and integrate later, CAN has been released in phases to test early versions of the hardware, software, data infrastructure, and use and access policies. These early versions of CAN are more minimal systems, housing the most straight-forward sensors to mount and calibrate. Based on findings from the early deployments, subsequent modules will grow in complexity as well as technical sophistication. This increases opportunities for in-action learning, community engagement and responsiveness, and integration of ongoing technical improvements, while simultaneously reducing the implementation burden on participating organizations.

The initial MAPPD deployment targets the intersections along the North Avenue Smart Corridor. The first CAN node was installed in July 2016, and is being used to develop an application programming interface (API) to access the real-time data. The next four nodes are targeted for installation by the end of October 2016.

2) Open Data/Open Innovation
In MAPPD, we are explicit about policies and practices related to open data and open innovation. Georgia Tech’s Center for Urban Innovation (CUI) is currently engaged in analyzing best practices of open data and open innovation in order to inform local policy and practice in these areas. A clear benefit of Smart City design and planning is the ability to leverage the distributed capacity of citizens and organizations by building platforms that accommodate changing needs of urban residents now and in the future. To date, open data, open innovation, and community involvement have been desired outcomes of many projects, but are often integrated ad hoc or as afterthoughts. Building these areas into MAPPD ensure that the technical deployment is necessarily coupled with appropriate public policy.

In one notable example from 2012 in New Orleans, Code For America fellows created BlightStatus, an application that “makes it easy for anyone to look up any address in New Orleans and see a simple, clear history of the property, including reports of blight, inspections, hearings, and scheduled demolitions.” Given the continuing impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city, BlightStatus addressed a prominent concern of residents: the ongoing social, environmental, and economic impacts of blighted property on the recovery and growth of the city. By showing the current progress of a case, the application increased transparency and accountability by revealing the inner-workings of bureaucracy. BlightStatus’ development reveals the ways Smart Cities can be developed through partnerships that extend the traditional geographical polity of a city as well as illustrates the key role of nonprofits and private companies in shaping cities through investment, services, support, and software, a point made by CUI Director Jennifer Clark in her recent work. This point in particular is further supported by the evolution of BlightStatus beyond its original design. The project started as an application for code enforcement in New Orleans but was later spun out into more comprehensive software called CivicInsight, offering a framework to track municipal processes from building permits in Palo Alto to economic development activities in Dallas.

The evolution of BlightStatus/CivicInsight illustrate that Smart City projects are deeply connected to an extended “fast policy” network of practices characterized by the adoption of technologies, the standardization of administrative practices, and the sharing of central concerns. The trajectory of BlightStatus/CivicInsight highlights the need to ensure that data is made open and available (as New Orleans did) both in the present and long-term to support the functioning of iterative applications. Even more, the software’s development shows that the value of allowing firms to leverage open data beyond the immediate need of a city as it holds the potential benefits for other cities with similar (or similar enough) issues. As an exemplar, BlightStatus/CivicInsight provides an example the necessity of open data and open innovation.

3) Interoperability First
As noted above, Atlanta’s North Avenue corridor is a designated testbed for multiple IoT (Internet of Things) systems, according to SMARTATL’s strategic plan. One central research question is how might these systems work together rather than work in parallel? 

Consequently, MAPPD is structured around the principle of “interoperability first,” meaning that the project is structured to consider requirements beyond any individual hardware or software, project or testbed. MAPPD instead focuses on the integration of multiple heterogeneous systems. In so doing, MAPPD mitigates proprietary lock-in. Thus, interoperability is not just a technical term that refers to the ways systems communicate and coordinate within MAPPD. Instead, interoperability includes the ways many different types of systems work together to make the Smart City functions and creates opportunities for economic development.

4) Public & Participatory
MAPPD holds a deep commitment to making the city work for its residents. As a part of that commitment, a deployment approach has been designed to integrate community engagement workshops to refine hardware/software, align the deployment team with as many stakeholders as possible, and better understand the needs, concerns, hopes, goals, and ideas offered by the community.

The first workshop is planned for October 2016 and will gather the community and stakeholders around the second sensor node planned for concurrent deployment. The workshop will ask how smart cities sensors might be meaningful to the specific needs of the community through facilitated activities, all of which will be hosted at the Atlanta City Studio. Subsequent workshops are planned for the following months, and focus on the next phases of MAPPD. As a whole, the workshops provide a means to give voice to the community, identify shared needs, and find new avenues for what a Smart City could mean at the neighborhood-, community-, and city-scale.

Smart Cities Rely on Open Innovation

In a recent article in Nature, Martin Curley, the Chair of the European Union’s Open Innovation Strategy and Policy Group outlined twelve principles guiding “Open Innovation 2.0.” Curley’s concept goes beyond Chesbrough’s original definition of open innovation by pushing the boundaries of the underlying concept further from the discrete act of invention to dynamic and programmatic acts of innovation.

The expansion of “openness” as it relates to innovation to include community separate and apart from government parallels the patterns seen in “civic IoT” (internet of things) practice. Similar to the crowdsourcing and hack-a-thon processes mentioned above to understand public sector applications of new inventions, Open Innovation 2.0 looks to includes communities of users in the entire innovation process. In other words, communities are part of determining what is developed, not just whether to buy a product once it is commercialized.  

Recognizing that many organizations still pursue innovation through linear contracts and bilateral relationships, Curley argues for an ecosystem approach in “Open Innovation 2.0.” And here the language of innovation returns to the same framework on which much of the resilience discourse is based: a language that favors natural systems and adaption.  The proximity between the two concepts  — innovation and resilience — seems to shrink in an Open Innovation 2.0 model.

Purely technical solutions to urban challenges rarely measure up to the promises of their advocates. The diffusion of urban innovations — in policy and planning — requires adaption to local contexts and communities.  Each city has its own unique administrative and managerial quirks and its own embedded norms and values — its own peculiar way of “getting things done.” Truly Smart cities require diverse stakeholders within and across cities collaborating on innovative solutions to a wide array of interdisciplinary challenges. 

The starting point for that collaboration is increasingly seen as the creation of networks aimed at building dialogue, fostering relationships, and sharing knowledge about what works and equally what does not. The broader question is how cities as places and as institutions manage their own resilience in the face of a dynamic environment where the technical terrain is uncertain and the policy outcomes largely unknown. Perhaps conceptualizing both urban governance and regional economies as open innovation systems is a step toward both economic and institutional resilience.


Smart Cities Research Neighborhood At CUI

smart-city-iconThis week marked the official rollout of the Smart Cities research neighborhood here at the Center for Urban Innovation.

In addition to providing a more central home for a number of existing Smart City-related projects such as the Center’s partnership with the MetroLab Network, ongoing research on the rise of coworking and the makers movement, and exploration of evolving urban innovation networks, the research neighborhood’s opening brings with it three newly-announced projects.

These projects are MAPPD, Open Data & Open Innovation Policy, and Civic IoT.

MAPPD: Multi-Array Phased Participatory Deployment

north-ave-sensor-boxMAPPD is a technical and strategic Smart Cities project developing a repeatable approach to scaling up a Smart City sensor network. MAPPD is a city-university partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology and the City of Atlanta, and a featured project of both the MetroLab Network and NIST’s Global City Teams Challenge. In addition to technical challenges, MAPPD focuses on three additional aspects of Smart City scale-up: (1) building partnerships, (2) fostering engagement, and (3) establishing open data and open innovation policy to allow for future technology-led economic development.

Watch this blog next week for an in-depth introduction to this important project.

Open Data & Open Innovation Policy
open-data-vennOpen Data and Open Innovation are two key concepts for the Smart City. To understand the ways these ideas are being executed, research is being conduct to collect, compare, and analyze Open Data and Open Innovation policies, practices, and protocols across the United States. This research focuses on producing an empirical typology of Open Data and Open Innovation to inform policy and governance related to the Smart City.

PARSE: Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments

iot-graphicThe Internet of Things (IoT) — the ubiquitous computing vision of connected and communicative computational objects — has largely been conceived of in relation to industry. As such, an underexplored domain that offers a unique set of challenges and opportunities is IoT for public life, or Civic IoT. This NSF-sponsored project aims to understand the design and use of IoT technologies for enabling, organizing, and monitoring collective action, particularly in the context of urban communities.

In addition to the new web presence of these exciting endeavors, the Smart Cities research neighborhood also features a growing list of participants in the various projects within the neighborhood. This improvement also coincides with the addition of selected categories on this very blog, including that of Smart Cities, permitting readers with a particular interest to read only the posts that most interest them. This new research neighborhood and the many changes that accompany it represent an important new chapter in the growth and evolution of the Center for Urban Innovation and its many policy, research, and partnership activities. Keep an eye on the website for even more developments in time, including a brand-new image gallery of recent CUI events, presentations, and more.

Smart Cities India: Regional Lessons for a Sustainable Future

By Todd M. Michney

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The idea that our future cities must leverage information technology to become “smart” is one that has captivated the globe in recent years.  Likely debuting at a 1990 conference on the emerging “technopolis” held in San Francisco, and subsequently appearing in the title of the published proceeding, the term “smart cities” now conjures visions of conjoined innovations in engineering, computing, and ecology to create more adaptive, sustainable, efficient, and vibrant urban environments offering solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems of inequality, overpopulation, pollution, and climate change.  Moving in this direction this past January, Atlanta joined Dallas and Chicago in partnering with AT&T to install sensors capable of monitoring traffic and air quality, as well as detecting power outages and even gunfire –- more data than city officials presently even know how to manage.

At the same time, a number of observers have expressed concerns about the larger implications of ‘smart city’ technology, and leveled sometimes trenchant critiques of the underlying motivations and implementation of such programs, particularly when applied to the developing world.  Adam Greenfield, in a 2013 essay entitled “Against the Smart City,” encapsulated some of the most widely circulated:  the smart city as a generic blueprint insensitive to local conditions; smart city technology as typically proprietary and therefore too inflexible; and the smart city as camouflage for hidden agendas that are often corporate- and profit-driven.  Bleaker assessments see in sensor technology the possibility of implementing “continuous geosurveillance” with the capacity to ultimately “destroy democracy.”  Taking a longer historical view of urban development but similarly critical of short-sighted smart technology rollouts, Anthony Townsend, in Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (2014), nonetheless envisions an alternative:  a bottom-up, gradual, and more organic emergence of smart cities, cobbled together by increasingly connected and tech-savvy urban dwellers themselves.

With 2008 as the first year in which over half the world’s population lived in cities, and the global urban population predicted to nearly double to 5 billion by 2050 –- with much of the anticipated growth in Asia and Africa -– the current century has been dubbed the “Century of the City.”  At the same time, the smart city concept “translates” uneasily to the global South, considering how basic infrastructure systems (water, sewers, electricity) there have often struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of urbanization.  This makes all the more striking the announcement by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, soon after his ascension to power in 2014, of a “Smart Cities Mission” (SCM) committing that country to build 100 such places by 2022 –- coincidentally the same year that India is predicted to surpass China as the most populous country in the world.


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Set up as a grant competition with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the first 20 cities to be awarded funding out of a planned 98 were announced by India’s Ministry of Urban Development in January 2016.  While it was never entirely clear how the new smart cities emphasis overlaps with existing urban initiatives already in place, what became most immediately obvious was that the government planned to fund only a small portion of the SCM’s cost -– some 20 percent of a total estimated at $150 billion.  Instead, private sector capital was expected to supply the remainder, with an eye on India’s potential for economic growth, for example as the world’s fastest growing smartphone market.  The opportunities associated with implementing hi-tech infrastructure on a mass scale soon attracted the interest of multinational corporations, as well as of governments including the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, France, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few.  However, despite Modi’s promises to cut the red tape associated with such projects, a number have failed to get off the ground, and one recent assessment has declared SCM to be struggling, with private investment so far having favored “profit-intensive sectors like digital infrastructure and real estate” over essential, basic services.  Moreover, allegations of corruption overshadow at least one project, and the opposition has accused Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of using the SCM as a form of political patronage.  Even before the initial 20 smart cities were announced, three municipal corporations in Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state, refused to sign on, and last month a lawsuit was heard challenging the SCM’s constitutionality.


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A careful examination of SCM’s mission statement makes clear that the initiative represents neither a dramatic break from India’s previous urban development strategies, nor is it nearly as ambitious as the initial impression might suggest.  First of all, rather than building nearly 100 entirely new smart cities, these are defined in the guidelines as areas which can be as small as 50 acres, leading some critics to describe the program as applying not to cities, but rather to “certain designated areas within them.”  The various specified approaches -– retrofitting, redevelopment, and “greenfield” development –- are long-established models, the challenges and drawbacks of which are by now well understood.  Thus redevelopment risks population displacement when applied to dense, often improvised urban residential districts (“slums”), or in some instances the loss of publicly-accessible green space, as in the case of one smart city project slated to replace a beloved park that catalyzed protests.  

“Greenfield” development of the agricultural hinterlands at the metropolitan periphery similarly threatens displacement, while additionally raising the issue of fair compensation.  In fact, India’s flagship, pre-SCM smart city project initiated in 2010, Dholera, is currently facing resistance from local farmers, and last year rural opposition forced Modi’s administration to take off the table a controversial loosening of the country’s land acquisition law.  In the wake of evidence that, despite SCM’s stated concern with affordable housing, planners were not adequately considering the needs of poor residents, one critic has asked whether their “democratic right to the city itself” was being “diluted.”  Language discovered in a promotional brochure, suggesting an intentional exclusion of the poor from the smart city’s benefits, has borne out even harsher assessments of SCM, for example as an undemocratic attempt to “monetize the commons,” or as the institution of “social apartheid.”


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Regardless of the SCM initiative’s shortcomings, smart city technology is coming to India, with some indications of more hopeful developments that may help promote a more equitable and accessible future even for city-dwellers of lesser means.  To be sure, there are already-existing smart city prototypes being built as public-private partnerships outside the scope of SCM, such as Wave (Infratech) City outside of Delhi, Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, or Hyderabad’s HITEC City (see accompanying pictures).  There are also entire, privately-owned cities like Gurgaon and Lavasa, which are even more impervious to public oversight than the projects planned under SCM.  At the same time, however, ordinary Indians are integrating current technologies into their daily lives on the household level, and citizen-innovators are creating bottom-up smart technology along the lines envisioned by Townsend, for example, community-driven mobile apps addressing garbage pickup, bribery, and sexual harassment.  Some observers have even looked to India’s poorest, yet “inherently smart” urbanites for ideas about how to move beyond the limitations of our current sprawl- and automobile-centered urban models.  Mumbai’s Dharavi district, for example, has been profiled as an innovation-generating “smart slum,” with one recent proposal seeking to empower residents by instituting a Community Land Trust as an alternative to demolition.  Visionary civil engineer Himanshu Parikh also tapped community knowledge in designing water and sewer systems for Ahmedabad’s slums, which by utilizing the natural topography, cost a fraction of conventional infrastructure and are spinning off new quality-of-life improvements.

These initiatives hint at the promise of a more creative, civic-minded, and community-led smart city concept.  But to reach its full potential, according to one commentator, the smart city should be rethought as an “ecology of practices,” emerging from and building on “the creative potential of its diverse inhabitants” rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all model delivered in the form of top-down, profit-driven imperatives.  Instead of standing as a passive beneficiary, then, India may offer an example of how citizens could adapt a more distributive smart city model to suit their own local needs -– a lesson that our own regionally-diverse cities in the U.S. should heed as we embark on making our own cities “smarter” and more livable for all in the decades to come.

A Reaction to “Technology and the Future of Cities”: Uneven Development and Expertise in the ‘Smart City’

By Taylor Shelton and Jennifer Clark

Smart City parking in Montreal, from the author’s files


On February 23rd, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released the report “Technology and the Future of Cities.” The report outlines a federal strategy to guide investment and engagement in ‘Smart Cities’ initiatives. Although the definition of a ‘Smart City’ remains nebulous in “Technology and the Future of Cities,” what matters more than any formal definition of the term are the ways that PCAST’s analysis and recommendations influence the production of the Smart City as it is. That is, the PCAST report is likely to have significant ramifications for many Smart Cities initiatives currently planned and deployed across the country.

Although the topic covered in “Technology and the Future of Cities” is understood as critical to US economic competitiveness, the future of cities report itself has been met with mixed reviews. One prominent player in the Smart Cities space has called the report “a rambling, sloppy embarrassment that fails to capture even the basics of a smart city.” On the other hand, Richard Florida’s assessment at CityLab is much more positive about the potential for this exercise to place cities at the center of federal technology and innovation policy.  This later view is consistent with the recent efforts of advocates of federal investment in technology to link cities to innovation policy more explicitly.

Rather than focus on the definitional or public management issues in the report, we highlight here two key elements worthy of closer attention.

The first issue of interest in “Technology and the Future of Cities” is also the most explicitly geographic: a focus on the creation of ‘urban development districts’ as test-beds for the implementation of smart city ideas and technologies. It is important to highlight the report recommends that the development of Smart Cities happens not at the scale of the city, but rather in ‘discrete regions within cities,’ where “[a] district does not necessarily have a predefined scale, nor must it fall within the political boundaries of a single city” (p. 2).

The report focuses on these ‘urban development districts,’ arguing that “[d]istricts offer larger cities the chance to take on these challenges in bite-sized stages” (p. 8).  It is true that smaller scale, test-bed or ‘living lab’-style implementations are useful for assessing the utility and interoperability of certain technologies or approaches. However, it is important to recognize what an urban development strategy built entirely around these spaces means for cities as a whole: continued uneven development.

In short, these test-beds aren’t problematic only because of issues related to combining and interlinking incommensurable systems that are, and will continue to be, developed in isolation from one another. The focus on specific intra-urban territories risks reinforcing and deepening the social and spatial inequalities within cities. Even though American cities have long since given up on what Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin called the ‘modern infrastructural ideal’ of pervasive and integrating infrastructural connections, the targeting of smaller districts within cities is likely only to create new forms of ‘secessionary network spaces.’ These kinds of ‘smart enclaves’ will be highly connected both within their boundaries and to quite distant places through networks of fiber optic cables, but will likely be functionally distinct from the surrounding neighborhoods and urban area that lack such advanced infrastructure and technology.

Although the report recommends some of these targeted districts should be located within low-income communities, a vision of the Smart City promoted by a district-centric implementation remains one of significant socio-spatial fragmentation and differentiation. Some places are inevitably privileged over others in the provision of new technology services, and it is unclear whether places neglected in the first rounds of these programs will ever see similar levels of investment.

It is also worth noting the broader context of these district-level implementation strategies in the history of urban economic development. Recall the evolution of various ‘zones’ -– ‘free trade zones,’ ‘enterprise zones,’ ‘empowerment zones,’ ‘promise zones’ -– designated for special services or tax advantages intended to drive development into such territories (and, necessarily, away from or out of others). Literature on this matter records mixed results and significant debate (indeed, this was one of the “great debates” in urban policy between Peter Hall and Bill Goldsmith, among others). In any case, provision of special technology services in some neighborhoods, but not others, raises serious concerns about fairness and justice in our cities. Unfortunately, the PCAST report places minimal emphasis on such matters, meaning that the significant planned investments into new infrastructures and technologies are more likely to deepen these longstanding inequalities.

The second issue of interest relates to the type of expertise that is (or isn’t) present in its construction and the formation of its conclusions. This involves recognizing and understanding the history of inequality and cities. A small number of the 100+ listed contributors to the PCAST report represent the perspective or expertise of the social sciences focused on cities and the urban scale. The technoscientific orientation of the report instead privileges experts in the sciences and engineering from both academia and from industry. Indeed, the burgeoning field of ‘urban science’ — founded on the principle that the conventional urban social sciences have been insufficiently scientific — occupies a prominent place in the content, as well as construction, of the report. This prominence of ‘urban science’ contrasts with a conspicuous absence of established disciplines such as urban geography, urban sociology, urban history, urban economics, urban anthropology, and urban planning.

This report is yet another signifier that the production of urban knowledge, especially that which is deemed useful for governance and administration, is increasingly disconnected from the last century of in-depth urban scholarship. Today, instead, urban knowledge is increasingly focused on the ability to gather, process and analyze massive datasets about any number of urban (or not-so-urban) phenomena. The role of the urban social sciences in the development of the federal government’s smart cities initiatives is given scant mention in the report, except to mention that “[g]iven earlier discussions regarding the interplay between technology and norms of behavior, it will also be essential to integrate social, behavioral, and economic sciences with these more traditional infrastructure sciences” (p. 41).  

Ultimately, the likely substantial financial investments in smart cities that will be made by the federal government represent an exciting opportunity for anyone interested in US cities. It remains to be seen, However whether the preoccupation with new technologies obfuscates the critical issue of whether provisioning fundamental services is dictated by efficiency or equality. Given the general absence of perspectives from the urban social sciences in the current conversation, it is difficult to see how investments will be equitably targeted. Instead, failures to attend to the ways urban spatial inequalities are produced means contemporary smart cities initiatives, like those advocated for in “Technology and the Future of Cities,” will simply fall into the trap of exacerbating uneven development.  Or, as has often been the case, the report and its recommendations — like US cities themselves — will be ignored.