New modeling, analytics can help cities solve their fiscal crises

Without new analytic modeling technologies, cities might be in the dark about the best ways to solve some of their more complex financial problems.

A number of smart-city projects are under way across the country, and in one way or another, they aim to test the ability of IT to go beyond core processing and into the realm of business intelligence to solve some of Urban America’s thornier social and economic problems. 

These projects include IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative, designed to use the company’s strengths in Watson-type algorithms and analytics to peer into a city’s departmental data trails for clues to unproductive systems and ways to manage more efficiently.


Related coverage:

How data wizardry can revive America’s cities


Taking a macro approach, a company called Pegasus-Global Holdings has proposed to set up a full-blown model city in New Mexico to test the impact of new technologies on the town’s energy, transportation, telecommunications and other sectors.

The Pegasus project, called the Center for Innovation, Test and Evaluation, would comprise “a fully integrated physical facility modeled on a medium-sized American city, including its urban, suburban and rural areas, built with standard roads, buildings, power, water, telecommunications and operating systems,” according to the company’s website. 

Nobody would actually inhabit the city. Instead, the facility would “provide a proving ground for technologies arising from the federal laboratories, universities, not-for-profit technology centers, federal departments and agencies, and the private sector.” 

A bold venture, to be sure, and one likely to have its share of doubters. One of them, Greg Lindsay, a New York University visiting scholar and the author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next,” recently poured cold water on the Pegasus plan, calling it an academic exercise as best. 

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Lindsay said that “despite its superior computing power and life-size footprint, Pegasus’ project is hobbled by the…false assumption that such smart cities are relevant outside the sterile conditions of a computer lab. There’s no reason to believe the technologies tested there will succeed in cities occupied by people instead of Sims.” 

I don’t think that’s right. For its enormous scale and open-ended business plan, the Pegasus project might in fact turn out to be a business folly. But that will likely have little to do with the technology that’s being tested in “SimCity.” Instead, it might have much to do with the absence of real users, warts and all, who must grapple with how to apply new intelligent technologies to decades of legacy system sprawl. 

In fact, the smart-city technologies being tested today by Pegasus and elsewhere might be the only way out of the current economic and organizational morass that cities, states and the federal government find themselves in today. How else can city governments understand the complexity of the tasks ahead of them — from the impact of the transportation system on local education to the relationship between public health and population density.

In our cover story in this issue, we detail some of those projects, including one in New Brunswick, Canada, that uses analytic modeling to find the sweet spot when highway repairs can be done to prevent having to make more costly repairs later. 

That’s the kind of problem-solving that’s directly relevant outside a computer lab. In fact, it might be highly unlikely to develop the solution — and others — without one. 

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