Building and Redefining Smart Cities
by Hardie Davis, Jr. & Aarti Tandon
April 27, 2020
Many of us read Marc Andreessen’s piece, “It’s Time to Build,” and appreciated the rallying cry to invest in innovation. His questions about gleaming skyscrapers, delivery drones, and hyperloops resonated with many people who have been advocating for a world of connected everything—people, places, things—commonly known as “smart cities”.
These tech-driven cities have become the modus operandi globally (as indicated by Mr. Andreessen’s reference to Singapore). From Colombia to Kazakhstan and Israel to India countries have been taking a uniform, collective approach to investing in smart, interoperable technologies (Dubai even has a Minister for Artificial Intelligence) while others like Neom in Saudi Arabia, Toyota’s Woven City in Japan, and the Sidewalk Labs project in Quayside, Toronto, are building cities of the future from the ground up.
There have been questions about privacy and surveillance, which are highly warranted, but the overarching premise is that technology can increase equity, sustainability, and citizen quality of life. In fact, developing cities are leapfrogging into the future by deploying sensors, big data, and other innovations in the areas of mobility, energy, water, infrastructure, and more.
If COVID-19 has demonstrated anything, Mr. Andreessen, you’re right, it is that the West has been inexcusably unprepared and that futureproofing our cities is now mission critical. As cities are forced to digitally transform, A.I., predictive analytics, sensors, heat maps, broadband, the cloud, and open data—the underpinnings of smart cities—are essential to building resilience against pandemics and epidemics, climate change, and other serious issues.
Companies like BlueDot, an infectious disease surveillance company that uses A.I. and data analytics, flagged COVID-19 nine days before the World Health Organization. Biobot which was using sensors placed in sewers to test for opioid use is now testing for COVID-19 cases. Technological innovation is helping cities and first responders receive and process information faster and more precisely through high speed networks, supercomputers, blockchain, visualization, and drones.
But in advocating for smart cities, it is imperative that we first redefine the term “smart”. It must be more than “better hospitals, better schools, better transportation, better cities, better housing.” For us a city, even with its shiny skyscrapers, is not “smart” if there is homelessness, if its residents cannot breathe, and if commuting to work is an extraordinary feat every morning.
Smart cities must be driven by investments in equitable infrastructure, not just intelligent infrastructure. As we look to flying cars and new forms of mobility, we must first commit to advancing economic and social mobility. Cities will only become smart when equity, prosperity, humanity, inclusion, and justice are on par with blockchain, A.I., IoT, big data, and automation.
We know it is possible. Cities are accelerating the adoption of autonomous vehicles to extend mobility options for persons with disabilities and for older adults who can age in their own communities. Imams and pastors are collaborating with tech companies to take a faith-based, data-informed approach to addressing the opioid crisis. And city vehicles are being equipped with mobile sensors to measure air quality and pollution in the unhealthiest and most underserved parts of New York City.
In fact, developing cities that are “smart” for all is more important than ever—as people work and learn from home, the digital divide and historic disparities are being exacerbated. COVID19 has revealed deep fissures in health, equity, and access. The unbanked are being further left out of the economy as most businesses go cashless. Children, both in urban and rural schools, are being further left behind due to lack of access to digital tools and broadband. And all across the country, governments and organizations are struggling with the future of work.
If there were ever a time and place to invest in smart, sustainable, and equitable infrastructure, it is now and in the most underserved, marginalized, and vulnerable communities, both rural and urban. Why aren’t energy-generating pavements being used on inner city basketball courts and playgrounds? How can we increase digital fluency in our poorest neighborhoods? It is not about access, it is about will—these pavements are being used in stadiums and universities, and coding and robotics programs are in schools from Birmingham to Boyle Heights. It is time we meet people where they are and give them an opportunity to participate in the 21st century economy.
Mr. Andressen, as a Mayor and the President of the African-American Mayors Association, we accept your challenge to the public sector to build and commit “fully to the future”. From tech accelerators in Tulsa to solving last mile challenges in Little Rock, we are working hard to advance infrastructure, innovation, and inclusion. In fact, Augusta is home to the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command Center Headquarters and the single largest investment by a state government in a cybersecurity facility—the $126 million Georgia Cyber Center.
But we cannot do it alone. The ability to futureproof our cities and serve as early adopters of technologies will be directly tied to increased public-private partnerships and the removal of stifling procurement rules. Cities must be able to benefit from the private sector’s extraordinary amounts of R&D and to move swiftly and efficiently to innovate, particularly in light of the complex challenges we are facing today.
Additionally, Mr. Andreessen, we welcome the opportunity to collaborate with VCs and the private sector to solve critical issues in our cities. In fact, we implore firms to no longer bring the next shiny disruptor to market without collaboration. Imagine what we could do together if VCs asked our communities how we could solve for air pollution or transit issues and then we collectively created good public policy to support our innovation? We would certainly achieve better outcomes for humankind.
And while our first priority is to ensure legislation is passed to assist cities reeling from the pandemic, we hope that this crisis will galvanize support for the Smart Cities and Communities Act which would authorize $1.1 billion in federal support over five years for local technology initiatives. The legislation would allocate funding for federal and local smart city programs, support workforce development and reskilling, and spur the study of emerging technologies across the country.
On the other side of this crisis, with social distancing in place, the sharing economy upended, and the world finding a new normal, our northstar must not only be a commitment to build, but to redefine “smart” (and “better”), so that when we do build, it will be with A.I., predictive analytics, and big data, rooted in a collective vision of equity, humanity, resiliency, and justice.
Hardie Davis, Jr., Mayor, City of Augusta, GA, and President, African-American Mayors Association and Aarti Tandon, CEO, Citizen Eight.