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May 07, 2009

Cities Of The People, By The People, For The People

Over the years, IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook has not shied away from huge, challenging topics. In fact, that’s exactly what the GIO was designed to do; explore the possibilities for innovation that can solve some of the world’s most pervasive and enduring problems. That’s why we have studied things like water, energy and the environment and health care.

In cities we have yet another massive challenge ahead. And as with any long journey, the hardest part is taking the first steps. So if our first deep dive session in Washington D.C. taught us anything, it’s that there is no clear starting place.

Our GIO participants brought with them a broad range of expertise, from smart electricity grids to transportation systems in the developing world. There were public works officials, technology executives, architects and venture capitalists. There was even a special assistant to President Barack Obama. And at times it seemed every single one of them held a different perspective on the most pressing problems and promising opportunities in our cities.

For example, here is a partial list of what participants felt were the most critical components in running a smarter city: leadership; transportation; health care; jobs creation; education; engineers; sustainability and energy efficiency; communications and connectivity; breaking down data silos; and raising capital.

There was some spirited debate about each of these topics. But in the end there was one thing that everyone agreed on: people. People should be at the beginning and end of every conversation about cities. With so many competing government agencies and businesses and special interests, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds on a topic like this, and forget that the purpose of all the urban components listed above is to raise the quality of life in our cities.

This is an obvious oversimplification, of course. Like the many perspectives of our GIO participants, every resident of a city has different needs and priorities. That’s what makes cities so great. But those varying needs are also very difficult to reconcile. So in the spirit of citizen engagement, participants started to kick around ideas for how to include more city residents in urban management. 

“You have to get the people that will use these systems engaged in the planning process,” said one participant.

And there are two ways of going about that. The first is by making more information available to the people. Today’s technology allows for an astounding amount of transparency into city systems. And not just government. Consider the power of providing real-time data on every possible transportation route from one destination to another within a city. It’s not hard to imagine a system that could analyze buses, trains, cars, and walking routes, based on current conditions, and use that information to calculate travel times, costs, even environmental impact of the different transportation options at any given time. It’s about choices. And having choices improves the quality of life.

But people are not just consumers of information in a city; they are also producers of it. The second way to get citizens engaged in the planning process is by gathering information about them and from them. Everything from how and when electricity is being used to why people are going to hospitals is immensely valuable data when making urban planning decisions.

Already in several cities around the world, mobile phone providers are tracking cell signals and providing aggregate data on how people are moving around cities. With this information, planners can discern whether a person is in a car, train, subway, or on foot, how fast they are moving, and what route they take to their destination. And by mapping the data over time, important lessons can be learned about how a city’s transportation systems are used, and how they can be improved.

Data is an undeniably important part of making informed decisions about our cities. And like anything, data can be misused and abused. But if we approach each city as a unique case, and stay focused on data being generated for and by the people of those cities, chances our good we’ll make the decisions that improve urban life. And that’s something we can all agree would be a good thing.

May 7, 2009 | Permalink

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