Why smart cities are about more than just tech

Dimitri Otis via Getty Images

“Diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility—that is a thread throughout, it is not an afterthought.”

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series that Route Fifty is publishing ahead of Smart City Expo USA, which will take place Sept. 14 and 15 in Miami Beach, Florida. More than 100 speakers and several thousand attendees are expected. Route Fifty is a media partner and will be covering the event. More information about the expo can be found here. The other articles in the series can be found here. Thanks for reading!

From optimizing school bus routes using machine learning to testing new ways to gather data on air quality, Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has worked on a wide range of projects over the years. The organization’s aim is to look for ways that cutting-edge technology can benefit cities and their residents. Karen Lightman joined Metro21 in 2017 and is now executive director. The institute, established in 2015,  serves as an intermediary between local government and nonprofit partners who have identified problems they want to solve and faculty researchers seeking to test their work in real-world settings. 

Route Fifty talked with Lightman about the kinds of problems smart cities technology can address and how important equity is in those projects. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What are some projects you’ve especially enjoyed working on under Metro21?

[A] project that I've had a lot of fun on, we're calling it our Smart Park Deployment. We are very cognizant of the fact that people are very wary of cameras or sensors tracking them. And so we have a junior faculty [member] named Katherine Flanigan, she's amazing, in engineering. And she's designed a solar-powered motion sensor that can measure the size of an object in space. And it's time-bound, so you know when it was [there and] how much time it spent there. 

We've deployed that in one of our urban parks here in the city of Pittsburgh that is sort of like a Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde park, because it has one part that's really urban, like a spray park for the kids and basketball courts and a tennis bubble and baseball field. And then on the other side of this major thoroughfare, there's an herb garden, and there's a dog park, and they have brunch on Sundays, and the orchestra plays. It's like a completely different experience. 

And so one of the mandates of the city of Pittsburgh and their partner organization, the nonprofit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, is to make parks more equitable, and to ensure that if improvements are made in the park, they're done equitably. 

But in order to make those investments, they need to understand how the park is being used. Well, how? If you do a survey, well, who's answering the survey? Like rich white people, or people who have a lot of free time. And so that's not necessarily your demographic if you're trying to be more equitable. 

So this is a tool to help inform infrastructure improvements. And our plan is to help the city and the Parks Conservancy to better understand how the park is being used, where it's being used, when it's being used. 

If you did this without this sensor, you really would be more [reliant on anecdotes]. You'd have to hire someone 24/7, or you'd have to have cameras, and nobody wants that. So it's been this really great experience of understanding how the park space is being used. 

Has the definition of a “smart city” changed over time?

It has changed. My background is in the microelectronics and semiconductors field, and also the internet of things. I know that we could put sensors everywhere. Does it make sense? Does it make economic sense? Does it make environmental sustainability sense? That's been my evolution, and also understanding that, just because you can maybe put sensors everywhere and cameras everywhere—should you? Is that the right use? And what is the problem you're looking to solve? 

And then also with the murder of George Floyd [in] the summer of 2020. That was a pivotal time for me, because I realized the distrust of authority, the distrust in our society, and the embedded racism in our society, those were issues that we had to address. You couldn't just stay in your lane.

We were working on a project with the Pittsburgh police, and we learned a lot of lessons that summer. And now we have another lens of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, to be thoughtful and intentional in the projects that we do.

Do you think the hype around smart cities has died down over the last several years?

I think it's shifted. I don't think it's hype anymore. I am very curious to see what it'll be like in Miami [at the Smart City Expo in September]. I think there will be a lot of energy, but there's a little bit more cynicism. But there's still a lot of opportunity. So I'm hoping that it's more an intelligent, thoughtful, discussion. I hope, more inclusive, not just ‘oh, look at that shiny, bright technology. That looks exciting.’

***

I think the private sector has been frustrated, because they thought, ‘Well, why aren't cities paying for this?’ Well cities are cash strapped, they've got other challenging issues that they've got to address. So yes, it's an important issue. But there's got to be another funding mechanism that doesn't just rely on the public sector. 

And then also, it needs to be equitable. So it shouldn't just be rich, affluent communities that are getting the benefits of smart cities tech, because then that creates even more division in our communities.

What kinds of problems can smart cities address?

Transportation, equity and mobility are still challenges that are really important to address. The disconnect between where jobs are and where the people live, still remains an issue. 

Water—too much water and not enough water—I think is something that most of America is dealing with right now. Climate-related issues, I think are really important. And these are not sexy, right? But when they go wrong, they go terribly wrong. And people die, like [in] these floods that we've seen where people are killed.

And infrastructure. Less than a mile from my home, my favorite park that I go to almost every day and walk my dog, a bridge fell one very cold January morning. And, and it was deemed in, quote, unquote, poor condition. But shockingly, we have many bridges in poor condition. So those basic maintenance, infrastructure things.

And I know that there are companies that have actually spun out of Carnegie Mellon that can help with that maintenance of infrastructure and can help with monitoring and maintenance of climate-related issues and intelligent transportation and inter-mobility issues. 

Legislation like the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has made billions of dollars available for infrastructure projects. If communities are working toward becoming smart cities, what advice would you share?

Work with a university. I'm part of the MetroLab network, that's a national network of about 35 universities that collaborate with communities at the city or county or municipal level. That's a great resource, because everyone thinks what they're doing is so unique. But frankly, we could have a lot to learn from each other. 

If the mayor and city council people can focus on: What are the real problems we're trying to solve? Partnering with the university I think really can help them tease that out.

We do a project here called a Scopeathon, we do it with our partners here at Carnegie Mellon to really help our nonprofit and municipal partners identify and scope out the problem. It's not always what it is you think it is. Sometimes what you're seeing is the effect as opposed to the cause. 

[And] keep an open mind. I'm going through a proposal process with the National Science Foundation right now. And you know, I'm saying like diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility—that is a thread throughout, it is not an afterthought. It is not a maybe-have, it's a must-have. And it needs to be intentional throughout.

Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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