People Centered Smart Cities Across the Americas

Smart city leaders from across the U.S. and Latin America took the stage on the final day of the 2024 All Americas Summit in San Antonio, Texas on May 31, 2024. The Summit, hosted by Sister Cities International gathered  elected officials, diplomats, and other key stakeholders from 35 countries across the Western Hemisphere for the purposes of promoting partnerships.  

Panelists expanded on the conference theme and related how partnerships are central to people-centered smart city development. Esteemed thought leaders, urban planners, technologists, and policy experts from various cities across the Americas focused on how emerging technologies and smart city solutions can be leveraged to enhance the quality of life for residents, while ensuring that these advancements are accessible, inclusive, and sustainable.

The panel was led and moderated by Emily Royall, Smart City Administrator for the City of San Antonio, Texas. Joining her were Bárbara Simão, Head of Research, Privacy and Surveillance, InternetLab, Brazil, Dr. Cintia Smith, Secretary of Innovation and Open Government, City of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico,  Rachel Stark, Smart Cities Program Manager, City of Charlotte, North Carolina. I was honored to also be included in the discussion. San Antonio’s own Jose De La Cruz with Microsoft  formerly City of San Antonio’s Chief Innovation Officer) provided opening remarks. 

Emily opened the discussion by sharing her invaluable experience of building a in San Antonio’s smart cities program, The Smarter Together initiative, which integrates residents into the process of digital transformation while also breaking silos within government to achieve results including the effective use of procurement practices to align public values with technology investments. Panelists offered their own perspectives including the importance of data integrity and security, ensuring that residents are included in the conceptualization of smart city technology long before deployment opportunities, and also the importance of involving elected leadership and front-line staff. 

Rachel Stark then offered her expertise in framing effective ways to engage local communities in the planning and implementation of smart city projects. She highlighted a recently published document that outlines Five Tactics for the Co-Created Smart City citing both barriers and successes from several North End Smart District (NESD) kick-start projects. Key to the success was the careful integration of data and analytics to steer government, private, and nonprofit partners who were guided by defined community goals.

Dr. Cintia Smith then spoke to the topic of technology integration and provided insight on how to leverage partnerships when the needs are great but budgets are small! She cited the critical role of innovative startup companies that are willing to work with government partners to pilot and refine their city-based offerings. Dr. Smith outlined the need to think strategically from both a long-term perspective while also demonstrating quick wins to build confidence and boost enthusiasm with top leadership as well as residents. 

Next, Bárbara Simão emphasized how critical it is to establish data governance protocols and protect residents’ privacy and ensure the security of their personal information in order to establish and maintain trust. Bárbara outlined how she and her organization, the InternetLab, Brazil, maintain integrity regarding effective data management and analysis. It is a balance that requires that dynamic residents’ needs be carefully and constantly considered. 

Finally, Emily inquired on how cities are grappling with the new risks and opportunities introduced by AI and how the use of AI can translate to real impacts or benefits to communities. I was able to cite the important and evolving work of the Government AI Coalition and The MetroLab GenAI for Local Governments Task Force. Both efforts showcase the input of city leaders and other stakeholders to provide guidance, best practices, templates, and policy recommendations. These efforts build upon the President’s Executive Order (EO) on Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence (Oct 2023) and NIST’s AI Risk Management Framework

The session offered a dynamic and interactive platform for sharing best practices, discussing challenges, and envisioning the future of urban living in the Americas while emphasizing the importance of putting people at the heart of smart city initiatives. By prioritizing people, government leaders can ensure that advancements in technology are able to support the promises of a smart city and lead to more liveable, equitable, and connected urban environments. It is exciting to see this topic of people-centered smart cities reach beyond the topic-specific conferences and expand into important global events such as the  All Americas Summit!