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May 21, 2009

Making Great Cities

What makes a great city? Is it healthy citizens? Plenty of jobs? A well-educated population? Or is it beautiful parks, a low-crime rate, and affordable transportation?

A great city is some, any, or all of those things and more. Cities are every one unique. So what constitutes a great city depends entirely on the city in question and the values of its residents. And that’s why many of the participants of IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook deep dive in Los Angeles advocated starting from the bottom and working up when going about building smarter cities.

“The questions that each city has to answer are these: How does leadership and management tap into the values of their communities? Do they have the systems and structures needed to translate those values into metrics that represent what people want? And are they able to then measure their progress towards those goals?” said Scott Taylor, a Senior Managing Director at Teach for America, a non-profit organization that provides young teachers in disadvantaged school districts. 

Taylor was not alone in this approach. The discussion featured experts in everything from urban planning and management to health care. It included futurists, urbanists, and journalists; academics, educators, and technologists. And many of them agreed on the need for some kind of system for urban change that is adaptable, specific to each particular city, and informed by the residents of that city.

Here are a few salient quotes from the day around this idea:

“You have to go back down to the bottom,” said one participant. “You have to be able to tailor your solutions, because what’s good for one city might be catastrophic to another. And the system must govern toward that vision, but be designed for rapid, incremental change and response to things we cannot possibly predict.”


“We are trying to plan a quality of life and an urban experience for people that we don’t even know yet, our future generations,” said Mary Jo Frederich, Director of Industry Solutions Lab and First-of-a-Kind Solutions at IBM. “Already my kids interact with each other and their schools in ways that I don’t understand.”

And finally:

“We know that more planning does not necessarily help you succeed,” said another participant. “In fact, the more you plan, the greater the cost of failure. So let’s have a thousand little failures that make up a collective, long-term success.”

Throughout the day, much of this thinking was directed towards the subject of education. There was little disagreement among those in the room that urban schools are part of the foundation of a smarter city. And the philosophies above have direct relevance in how to approach improvement of city schools.

“You can define and measure an educated city in a number of ways,” said Taylor. “Maybe it is narrowing the gaps between the best and worst education level. Or maybe it’s the percentage of people that go to an Ivy League school. But you have to be careful which metrics you choose, because those two things are very, very different. So where you start from shapes what information you’re going to gather and what you will do with it.”

At least one metric that most people in the room felt was important was the level of integration city schools had with their communities. For example, Oakland’s school system has its students addressing climate change by going out into the community and performing energy audits around the city. This is just one example of how educational curriculum can intersect with other urban systems, in this case energy and utilities, and make the school system a more integral part of a community. This enables the schools to improve the community, and makes the community more inclined to support the schools.

While it may be true that no two cities are alike, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from examples like these. And when the values of the community are taken into account, a vision is created, and progress is measured, smarter cities are possible, one small step at a time.

May 21, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

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 | Comments (27) | TrackBack