The Human Side of Smart Cities: Looking Beyond The Bright Shiny Objects

The same innovations transforming business are also transforming cities.  Rapid advances in technology, including the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced mobile broadband capacity, can deliver a highly connected, seamlessly automated, data-rich reality. In a smart city, millions of devices, cameras and sensors collect and deliver data that is shared and analyzed to support better decision making around optimizing the urban experience. The array of technologies and their capabilities are alluring, but these are only the “what” of a smart city. What about the “why?”

“Smart City conversations have been dominated by technology,” says Kevin Kryah of Smart & Resilient Cities. “As the conversation has become more robust, talk has shifted toward the factor that drives all cities, big and small: people.” This theme is resonating at industry conferences such as the Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo in Austin, Texas, and Gigabit City Summit in Kansas City, Missouri.

Look beyond the gadgets, gizmos and gigabit connections of a smart city to find the motivation for their existence. These technologies enable safer and more mobile, sustainable, equitable and enjoyable cities for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Some examples:

In a smart city, traffic lights are synchronized with first responders so they get to their destination faster. Why? To save lives.

In a smart city, connected LED lights and sensors are controlled by a centralized system center. Why? To reduce energy waste and costs and collect data about how to ensure a greener, cleaner environment, so people live healthier lives.

In a smart city, sensors on bridges, roadways and water pipes deliver data to prioritize maintenance by need. Why? To save taxpayer dollars and bolster the belief that government can use resources wisely.

In a smart city, electronic signage across all sectors of the city displays relevant, real-time information while also providing Wi-Fi hotspots as sensors to collect data. Why? To increase engagement among residents, visitors and government while bridging the digital divide, so all people can prosper.

Advances in technology are clearly shaping how people live in cities, but what about how people work? These same technologies are contributing to an area of focus called “The Future of Work,” which is being characterized by (1) the automation of jobs, (2) shifting workforce skill requirements and (3) remote and global access promoting contract, freelance and telework.

These shifts provide relatively clear benefits to business. Technology supports production efficiency, which increases marginal profits and supports the decrease of the costs of goods and services. The needs of the market will shift, and expanding global markets will adapt to meet the needs. Hypothetically, this ultimately benefits all. But when returning to the “why,” will it be as Thoreau warned? An “improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at?”

There are plenty of alarming headlines on job loss or challenges to our collective and individual sense of purpose. Referencing the lessons learned from the Industrial Revolution, during which water and steam power mechanized production, we can hypothesize tech will displace certain kinds of work while also generating wealth. It will become important to watch for greater economic inequalities, imbalances of power and any further increase in disenfranchisement.

Going beyond the alarm and gloom, the future of work holds great promise, even in the midst of the social upheaval that results from technology disruption. By leveraging, rather than being defined by, the advances in machine intelligence, big data, predictive analytics and connected technology, we have a chance to shrink the digital divide and build a more economically equitable future that enables people to repeatedly reinvent themselves.

The keys to transitioning people who work in smart communities and future industries include (1) refocusing skills and experience, (2) providing education and opportunity and (3) ensuring these mechanisms enable the most vulnerable groups. Tech can accelerate this process. As modern tools improve, the capacity advances to share resources while rethinking and restructuring education and workforce development.

This isn’t just a one-sided benefit. In fact, companies and industry stand to receive the greatest gains when the workforce is supported with knowledge and training. There may emerge a new “shared self interest” that could inspire a new level of collaboration among private, public, nonprofit and academic sectors.

No one can predict what will happen in the coming years, but one certainty about the future of cities and the future of work is dramatic transition and transformation. This places an urgency on focusing impact on lives and livelihoods with new levels of flexibility and adaptation. Global organizations, such as the Eisenhower Fellowship and the Impact Hub network, are readying for the challenges ahead by gathering and informing stakeholders through conferences, summits, meetings and online communication.

As the “what” continues to shift, the “why” remains constant: It is about people and the cities that depend on them. The exciting breakthroughs in technology can be a tremendous asset in advancing the human agenda to live prosperous, purpose-filled lives. Within smart cities and industry, there is potential for innovation to benefit all people, regardless of their color or the color of their collar. There is opportunity in smart cities for all people, regardless of socioeconomic status. As humans imagine and create the programs, networks and tools to support each other in transition, the near future can be an era of unprecedented economic, societal and personal growth.


This article was originally published in Texas CEO Magazine here and is re-published here with permission from the author.