As go our cities, so goes the world.
Some 80+% of us live in urban centers. And the vast majority of population growth this century will happen in these and new cities not yet even imagined.
This is one of the most urgent challenges and the largest opportunities of our times. Fix our cities and you impact the planet and global culture in truly formative ways.
Cities are in many ways both the cause and the solution to a large part of what worries us today: global warming, food supplies and practicality of local sourcing, our health as a population, how fiscally solvent are governments are, how open we are to diversity and how human in our responsibility to take care of each other.
And while certainly, the reality on the streets of New York is not the norm, how we address our problems here creates learnings that can be used everywhere–from Cincinnati to Tbilisi to Porto t0 Ljubjana.
What is a Smart City really?
Honestly, while I think about urban density and its impact on every piece of our lives often, the moniker of a smart city didn’t engage me till my friend Tom Critchlow sent over the link for the upcoming Smart Cities NYC event.
Two of their premises dragged me in:
-Defining Smart Cities very broadly as a category, similar to the terminology we use for the Wellness market or Natural in the food and wine segments. A high-level umbrella to aggregate community and innovations under without limiting the scope of our thinking.
-While broad and multidisciplinary by definition, there is a lot of tool talk, tech especially and understandably so. Cities are built on broad horizontal platforms and tech is transforming most of them daily.
The organizers of the event define Smart Cities as the ‘ intersection of curating technology to the benefits of urban life’ which while this is true, I think of it more from a people first perspective.
Starting with the needs of urban populations as captured in these five simple concepts:
1. Safety first
The overarching necessity that we are all ok and safe because of the depth and mass of humanity, not in spite of it.
2. Mobility and transportation
How to enable literally millions of people to get around on foot, on bikes, in cars, on subways, by water taxi in a seemingly effortless way to gather in groups at an infinite number of destinations.
3. Information and communications
The real-time massively-scalable need to find out what-is-where-when, through each individual’s smartphone regardless of language or economic status.
4. Community and neighborhood
The super glue that makes cities work. We need laws and enforcement but the community and civic ownership is prime.
Without it, without interpersonal and cultural respect, the world and NY itself will simply become unhinged.
5. Public spaces
This is the beating heart of our urban lives and the soul of our cities.
Each of us feels that every open foot of public space is our own. They are and that is what makes it all work in a reality that is almost impossible in its complexity.
People first is always where to start
Cities by definitions are their own markets. People and their well-being are the only criteria for success.
I lived in NY and in many other cities before Citbike and Zipcar, Uber and Lyft, Google maps and endless data feeds that make safety, navigation, transportation, communication and community possible.
Life is immeasurably better today through the hooks horizontally into our broad social nets and vertically through countless apps and solutions.
But even prior to the Internet, places like NY have been dramatically transformed through open space planning and community actions, way before the advantages of networks became a tool for us.
The safety and beauty of a place like Bryant Park today from the true slum that it was in the 80s.
Central Park truly a scary place then, now one of the wonders of the world, open till 1 AM every night and safe without being antiseptic or tame in the least.
The openness of new ideas in recreational spaces like the Hudson River Park, that extends from the South Seaport up to the GW Bridge. Free and clean and available to everyone.
Or the brilliance of the private-public partnership that built The Highline, one of the most innovative new parks in any city in the last decade.
In each of these, there are components of community organizing, of urban design, of crowdsourced funding, of city government cooperation and of tech, that came together in impossible ways to make each possible.
But we are simply just getting started.
Many say that the future is defined by where technology and urbanism meet.
I think the future of urban life is where livability, affordability, and environmentalism meet collectively with the people who inhabit these places. Where the goals are clear and the tools to get there—part technology, part community, part government–are shared by all.
Nothing is perfect obviously and there are monstrous problems that we don’t even know how to approach here in NY.
Affordable high-speed connectivity where you can’t lay fiber is a massive gotcha for NYC. Figuring out how to fund all of this and still make the city affordable for all, damn near impossible.
But I’m completely in on this idea of the city as the schematic for the world.
And as a New Yorker, a technologist, a community builder and marketer, and a pragmatic optimist it feels personal to me to help try and solve these problems.
So–do share if you have ideas of orgs or people that I should know about.
Blogs and podcasts are a good place for me to start so I can get to know the person and narrative, not just the ideas.
If you are attending Smart Cities NYC, contact me as I plan on being there.