Almost five years ago, amidst the initial hype of the technology-driven “smart city,” we published a report urging cities to take a step back. While talking to the early digital pioneers within city government, these leaders expressed to us that technological development was happening faster than their agencies could keep up. In response, we proposed judging “smartness” by whether places had developed a clear vision to guide their digital future, rather than by how many sensors and software systems they had installed.
Since our report was published, public and private consensus has caught up. Public officials and technology developers now consistently start smart city conversations with a focus on place-based outcomes. At the national level, we can see this through calls to focus on people and redefine citizen engagement. In specific cities, like Kansas City and Boston, grand strategies and guiding principles undergird major projects.
Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro
Former Senior Research Assistant - Metropolitan Policy Program
Yet even in the most digitally advanced places, there is still work to do. As we enter this next evolution of smart city development, what are the specific strategies needed to bring a smart city vision to reality?
This core question was top of mind during a recent trip to Atlanta. While Atlanta, like any place, has its unique qualities, much of what is happening in the Southern metropolis embodies questions and lessons for the entire country.
For one, it’s important to recognize that geography has evolved alongside our technology. Physically, our words often fail to capture the new boundaries of place. In Atlanta, the metropolitan area grew from a core set of five counties in 1970 to 29 counties in 2010. At this point, metropolitan Atlanta’s square mileage is roughly equal to the entire state of Massachusetts. Atlanta is not alone in this outward push: U.S. land qualified as urban grew an astonishing 125 percent over roughly the same period. Those looking to build smart places should pay attention to questions of scale—think beyond the city, and think instead of smart regions.
The consequences of this rapid growth are real. Environmental, economic, and social equity concerns arise when connecting more people and more businesses across wider space. For example, with a booming and sprawling population, it’s no wonder 78 percent of metropolitan Atlanta commuters drive alone to work. Having more cars on the road not only contributes to congestion and longer commutes, but also to higher rates of asthma for the region, a general lack of energy and water resource efficiency, and even higher household costs. Beyond the issues of sprawl, cities still must deal with the evergreen issue of providing services equitably, as poverty spreads and municipal budgets are stretched.
Though technology may not be a panacea, it certainly has the potential to address some of these challenges. In terms of transportation, ride-sharing apps, bikeshare systems, and the capacity to work remotely are all reducing the need for private car ownership and usage. As we are more thoughtful about how we integrate technology into construction and building design, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent and water consumption by 15 percent. Other industries such as waste management and healthcare still have unrealized digital gains.
So, how do we get there? How do metro areas like Atlanta continue to bridge the gap between their ambition to leverage technology thoughtfully and the outcomes they hope to achieve? Assuming there is a central strategy and a clear set of desired outcomes to advance the collective future of a metro area, these four steps can benefit just about every place:
- Promote deeper engagement with residents and businesses. Building a smarter city requires the trust and support of the people who live there. Although public trust in local governments remains high, the plummet in trust in the federal government over the past decade suggests that trust is never guaranteed. Active local engagement can ensure the public’s ideas and concerns are heard and addressed throughout any design and execution process. Engaging citizens not only has inherent value, but also helps garner trust and buy-in throughout the process. You can’t plan city and metropolitan futures in private office rooms; building a smart city requires engagement.
- Intentionally build strong, formal collaborations between public, private, and civic actors. If metro areas are collections of people, businesses, and institutions, we must recognize municipalities shouldn’t always run point. The city of Atlanta collaborates with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and its corporate partners, Georgia Tech, and other research and advocacy organizations to make good on commitments like SmartATL. Critically, Georgia Tech is pursuing statewide efforts to scale digitalization strategies, joining a small cohort of other states like Illinois that are exploring the same concepts. Metro areas must find ways to leverage local corporate, philanthropic, and nonprofit expertise to both inform long-term planning and establish sustainable efforts focused on digital tech.
- Modernize governments’ approach to data collection and use. Recent developments in technology have exponentially increased the private sector’s ability to collect, store, and analyze data, while the government lags further and further behind. Private companies like Google and AT&T better understand how people are using public infrastructure than the government itself, while computing models move to the cloud. However, the incentives for private-public data sharing may not align, procurement models are outdated, and public staffing capacities struggle to compete. This tide will only grow more intense as next-level technologies, including artificial intelligence, put new pressures on local governments. To better keep up, state and local governments will need to think creatively about how to more effectively build internal capacity.
- Establish new performance measures and goals based on collective outcomes. It is promising that some smart city actors now lead with long-term planning when designing local programs and investment strategies. But to deliver on what are often complex outcomes—promoting social inclusion, reducing environmental waste, and growing entrepreneurial ecosystems—the public sector and its partners need new sets of performance measures and data to reflect the challenges of today. Old measures like roadway congestion or metro-scale innovation are not enough. New measures should address questions such as: Why are people driving from a certain neighborhood at a certain time? Which neighborhoods struggle to build successful startup businesses, and which social communities are left out? Performance measurement must evolve with the times.
These steps are just one slice of what it will take to continue the modernization of cities and suburbs in the digital age. The actual practice of delivering on these calls to action are even harder, a major reason why efforts exploring new collaboration models and testing new performance measures are so essential. Fortunately, as seen in Atlanta and other places, change is underway.