McKinsey: smart cities are about people

  (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

For the better part of a decade the Jetsons has become less a TV cartoon from the early 60s, and more like a dream of the immediate future, even if in retrograde. As the 2018 McKinsey report says, "Frictionless, futuristic cities with maximum efficiency and minimal environmental impact have captured our imaginations."

If you’ve heard about the aspirations of "smart" cities compared to current reality it probably comes as no surprise that cities are still a long way from realizing their utopian-esque visions.

“Adding intelligence to complex environments that have evolved organically over many years has proven challenging,” say the latest McKinsey findings, the complete title of which is Smart Cities: Digital Solutions for a More Livable Future. Managing to use that intelligence to effect meaningful change in the quality of life is even harder.

To evaluate each city's technology base and applications, the report’s researchers relied on local government sources, published case studies, academic research, media accounts, interviews with experts and service providers, and central databases. They gathered data between October 2017 and January 2018, then validated their findings with local McKinsey colleagues in each of the 50 cities in March 2018.

"Becoming a smart city is not a goal but a means to an end," the report asserts. "The point is to respond more effectively and dynamically to the needs and desires of residents." They remind us that technology is simply a tool to optimize the infrastructure, resources, and spaces they share. No one wants to get left behind, but no one knows exactly how it looks to move ahead either.

After a decade of trial and error, municipal leaders are realizing that smart city strategies start with people, not technology. “Smartness” is not just installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure or streamlining city operations. It is about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.

The report’s assertions about the goal and implementation of the technology is an important reminder that not all growth is possible even where there’s a will. New York City, for instance, is rated as one of the highest cities in the world in meeting the multi-faceted, "smart city" criteria. They write:

One standout is New York City. Its tech base includes very high rollout of low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN) technologies, water quality sensors, and smart water meters. Its new civic tech program, NYCx, will transform Governors Island into a test bed for 5G and other advanced connectivity technologies. The city’s excellent open data portal makes a vast amount of data available on many different metrics; its ease of access for developers has produced a flourishing mobile app ecosystem.

New York is one of the cities with the greatest number of applications deployed overall, and it has notable activity in health and in government, community, and housing. The city has also achieved relatively high public awareness, usage, and satisfaction. New York has effectively managed the process of becoming smarter. Its Office of Technology and Innovation reports directly to the mayor, and a Technology Leadership Council brings in tech industry experts and community leaders. Individual city departments have added significant digital capabilities, and the city has become more innovative in infrastructure delivery. While New York’s efforts are becoming more focused on how to improve residents’ experience, it will be challenging to meet their growing expectations—and particularly to address their impatience to see better performance from the city’s traditional infrastructure systems.

In spite (or perhaps because) of this, New York City officials are moving to cap the number of vehicles driving for Uber and other ride-hailing services as part of an aggressive move to address mounting concerns that their explosive growth has led to worsening congestion and low driver wages, according to a recent New York Times report. It is the second attempt by the city—Uber’s largest U.S. market—to cap the company’s vehicles after a failed effort by Mr. de Blasio in 2015. The city is considering a number of measures to help not only taxi drivers, but Uber drivers as well.

Such setbacks—often dubbed “disruptions”—on the road to becoming “smart,” are not addressed in the report. Occasionally, the report does refer broadly to “challenges.” The report mainly focuses on the clear need of updating cities in the face of unprecedented pressures as populations boom and infrastructure systems are stretched.

“Cities,” they write, “are also the world’s best laboratories for solutions. Digital intelligence gives them a fresh set of tools for doing more with less.”

Among the many positive aspirations, "Smart cities can deliver a cleaner and more sustainable environment. Smart city technologies do not create or destroy large numbers of jobs...but they can make local labor markets more efficient. Smart cities can slightly lower the cost of living."

The report suggests that city government does not need to be the sole funder and operator of every type of service and infrastructure system, and, in fact, in the example of Uber and Lyft, this is no doubt true.

“While implementing most of the applications we examined would fall to the public sector, the majority of the initial investment could come from private actors,” the report asserts. “Public financing may be reserved for only those public goods that must be provided by the government. Furthermore, more than half of the initial investment that needs to be made by the public sector would generate a positive financial return, which opens the door to partnerships.”

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The report sees three essential layers that need to work together to make a smart city hum. First, cities need a layer of sensors and devices throughout the physical environment. Smartphones are an important element, as they act as mobile sensors. Whether or not you’re afraid of the “Big Brother” effect, phones generate location and other data, and they are the most common means for users to interact with applications. Other crucial elements include air and water quality sensors, surveillance cameras, and waste receptacle sensors.

For the second layer, cities need robust communication networks. These include broadband and mobile networks with high down- and upload speed, as well as low latency. Another aspect for residents and visitors is free public Wi-Fi coverage. Lastly, as billions more sensors and smart devices need to be wired into the Internet of Things (IoT), LPWAN with unlicensed and licensed technologies (such as LoRa and narrowband IoT) provide some necessary connectivity.

Third, open data portals are important platforms for innovation. City governments hold reams of potentially valuable data in their infrastructure systems, public records, and the environment. Many cities around the world now make significant amounts of their information public, from restaurant health inspections to school performance and neighborhood crime statistics. Converting data sets into standardized, sharable formats and making them available on easy-to-use public portals gives external developers the raw material for making applications—and in particular, provides the fuel that “trains” analytics and AI systems, enabling them to perform more sophisticated functions. Open data also supports greater transparency, accountability, and civic engagement.

Technology can help to ease gridlock, such as intelligent syncing of traffic signals to prevent  intersection backups. Real-time navigation alerts drivers to accidents, construction, and congestion and helps them choose the fastest route, which helps when the available infrastructure actually affords reasonable alternative routes.

Smart parking apps point them directly to available spots, eliminating time spent fruitlessly circling city blocks—an effect that reduces congestion for everyone. Applications such as congestion pricing aim to ease traffic by discouraging driving altogether, particularly during rush hour. Smart parcel lockers and load pooling (which dynamically matches available truck capacity with delivery needs) can cut down on the number of trucks clogging streets.

The possibilities are as endless as flying pods and robots--and the smart people that make it all happen.