DENVER — In the recent past, smart cities' focus was on deploying technology. Now, the conversation has shifted to asking how technology should be used, including in areas like transportation and civic engagement, according to speakers on the second day of the Smart Cities Connect conference in Denver. Leaders are now far more concerned with how technology can be used to help communities, and how those best practices can scale.
In a speech, US Ignite Chief Technology Officer Glenn Ricart said it represents a real paradigm shift, as cities have moved from talking and planning innovations to executing them. "I think we're seeing a maturation of the smart city movement," he said.
Few technological advancements have city leaders on edge as much as artificial intelligence (AI), which has the potential to make many processes and tasks easier — but could also result in significant job losses. In a report last year, the National League of Cities (NLC) warned municipalities should take “strategic steps” to prepare their economies and their workforces for increased automation of jobs in the coming decades.
During a panel discussion on AI, speakers said there is plenty about the technology to like, even while concerns over implicit bias and the replacement of jobs must be considered and taken seriously. Austin, TX Chief Information Officer Stephen Elkins said the city has already made use of AI in its court system by using it in a chatbot that can answer residents’ questions about paying tickets.
He said the next step could be in the city’s permitting process, with the technology potentially being used to cut wait times for approvals of applications down from hours to minutes. Elkins said if used properly, he is “all-in” on AI, especially as it is “augmenting not replacing” jobs.
"I think anything that requires waiting in line, checking a list type of thing, that could be a use for AI," he said.
Speakers agreed AI must be used in ways to help the human race. Petra Dalunde, chief operating officer of Sweden firm Urban ICT Arena, said it could help in areas like helping cities hit their sustainability goals as they try to uphold the Paris climate agreement.
Sweden has a national AI strategy, something the United States moved towards earlier this year when President Donald Trump signed an executive order to launch the American Artificial Intelligence Initiative, which orders federal agencies to prioritize and provide resources for U.S.-based AI technology research and development.
Dalunde said that while Sweden is still working out exactly how it wants to use AI, the government’s priority should be using it for good. Already, she said, that has included automatically directing homeless people in capital city Stockholm to shelters when the temperatures fall below a certain level.
“What we are envisioning is the automatic city that is super responsive and on terms together with the citizens,” she said. “Help us on an individual level to reach our full potential."
Dalunde warned that, despite the hype surrounding AI, its potential uses and how they can help people must be fully understood, or else it risks being without a purpose.
"If we don't reorganize and work in new ways and make use of digitalization, the risk is like icing on a moldy muffin,” she said. “It looks really nice, but as soon as you start eating, it's really not that fun."
With the growth in the use of technology, cities will also have to deal with the growth in the data they collect, store and potentially use, something that has privacy and security concerns for many in light of recent breaches of private companies such as Facebook and Uber. But given that data collection and analysis is growing increasingly important in cities, speakers said the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
"Napoleon said, 'An army marches on its stomach.' I like to say a smart city exists on its data," Ricart said.
But with that increased data collection comes increased risks, and several people said there must be greater steps taken in areas such as cybersecurity. During a panel discussion, Jason de Souza, vice president of industrial solutions at networking company Anixter, said that job titles like Data Protection Officer will grow in importance for cities as they wrestle with the data they collect.
"If we don't reorganize and work in new ways and make use of digitalization, the risk is like icing on a moldy muffin ... It looks really nice, but as soon as you start eating, it's really not that fun."
Chief Operating Officer, Urban ICT Arena
Brian Crow, vice president for analytics and software solutions at smart metering company Sensus, said that every business and government needs somebody "walking around who's absolutely paranoid of cyberterrorism,” as if citizens do not have faith in their data being handled well, initiatives and innovations can fall by the wayside.
"If our citizens lose trust in us as purveyors of their data, then we'll never be able to take the smart city concept to the place that we want to," Crow said.
But cities are using data effectively, so there is plenty of hope that others can do the same. Los Angeles Chief Innovation Officer Amanda Daflos noted the city’s new earthquake early-warning app ShakeAlertLA is built on data and predictive analytics as well as real-time detection. And the city has made changes in areas like street cleaning and trash collection by using data to determine which streets are underserved.
Another area where the conversation is shifting is in transportation and mobility, which has been disrupted in recent years by ride-hailing and dockless bikes and scooters, among other technological innovations. It has forced cities, transit agencies and others involved in transportation planning to take a holistic approach as they try to convince people to be less reliant on personal vehicles in a bid to reduce crippling urban congestion.
"If you're a transit agency, you're not just looking at transit alone,” Noam Maital, CEO of AI mobility company Waycare, said during a panel discussion. "You're looking at the cars on the road and you're looking at the pedestrians, and if you're a planning agency, you're also looking at the transit data."
Maital predicted a “revolution” in transportation if cities are able to break down the silos that exist in planning, and there already appears to have been progress in some areas. Michael Carroll, chief innovation officer at the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), said technology can help transit agencies and cities update infrastructure like traffic signals to give buses priority, while collecting data can help them make decisions on where to install dedicated lanes and where to add first-mile, last-mile solutions to connect people to transit stations.
And with the continued rise in fatal crashes on America’s streets leaving many concerned, speakers said more must be done. Spencer Reeder, Audi of America’s government affairs director, said the best innovation cities can make is to encourage walkable mixed-use communities downtown that combine retail, residential and other businesses.
"If our citizens lose trust in us as purveyors of their data, then we'll never be able to take the smart city concept to the place that we want to."
Vice President, Sensus
Maital said with the continued rise of fatalities as well as the slow recognition that building more roads does not alleviate congestion, things are starting to swing back to being more pedestrian-focused after generations of planning was dominated by the single-occupancy vehicle.
"Since we started building highways, we've been pushing out pedestrians, but now I think it's coming back around," he said.
Other innovations are said to be just around the corner in transportation, including the growth of autonomous vehicles (AVs), which have been touted as a potential game-changer for mobility and are the subject of millions of dollars in research spending from automakers and ride-hailing companies alike.
But the widespread onset of AVs is still a ways off, according to Moran David, general manager at Intel-backed driving technology firm Mobileye, and city leaders would do well not to get too swept up in the hype.
"It kind of seems like everyone is in stagnation waiting for autonomous vehicles to come, and we are missing several crucial stages,” David said. “While the autonomous vehicles have a lot of projects happening right now, you're not going to see robot taxis in New York City in the next decade."
Technology also has made an impact on public safety and resiliency, although there is plenty of work to be done even as initiatives like FirstNet take hold to provide dedicated spectrum and technology to first responders.
In a speech, Dereck Orr, division chief of the public safety communications division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), noted that while human beings are reliant on their cell phones and connected devices, there is still a way to go to make them easier to use for first responders, who may not be able to use them if they are directly responding to a fire or are involved in a situation requiring them to hold a firearm. "We have to provide public safety a new way to interact with the system," Orr said.
But while there are issues still to be resolved, Orr said the future of technology’s use by first responders is bright. He gave examples of the use of virtual reality (VR) to help train police officers to deal with active shooters, while augmented reality (AR) could in time allow bomb disposal units to look inside a device and see all its component parts, so making it easier to defuse safely. Drones, too, could improve safety for first responders and allow them to make quicker assessments of dangerous situations.
Orr said there are plenty of good ideas around about how technology can be used to help public safety officials, and it must be nurtured. "It's through open innovation that we're really going to empower all the really critical thinking that's going on," he said.