“We can’t build our way out of this,” said Mark Down, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology and Senior Advisor at the Department of Transportation. Cities are facing huge challenges that are likely to get worse over the next decades – unless, that is, we work together to do something about it. Across SXSW Interactive 2016, city, state and even federal officials were looking to technology as the solution for the problems of cities’ futures with a host of panels on “smart cities” and urban tech. Over half the world’s population currently lives in cities, with even more in suburbs.
To top it off, traffic and congestion are getting worse – the average American spends 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. Transportation costs are high, costing the average American family up to 20% of their income, with increasing tolls on the environment and public health.
The conference became a place to meet up (literally, like at the Civic Tech Hackers and Advocates Meet Up), share ideas at multiple panels, and even compete for seed funding: SXSW was the venue for the Department of Transportation’s announcement of the finalists of the “Smart City Challenge,” in which mid-sized cities created a proposal to solve transportation challenges through technology. The challenge, announced at the end of 2015, was so successful that the DoT added two extra finalists, and the seven mayors had the chance to describe their proposals and accept $100,000 grants to help them streamline their proposals for the chance to win up to $40 million, but SXSW offered a whole lot more about what’s next for cities.
Investing in technology lays a foundation for the future
At a panel on Urban Intelligence: Building Cities that Thrive, a mixture of experts tackling challenges facing New York City shared some of their latest strategies. Most of these revolved around leveraging data gathered from sensors and other ways the cities is becoming increasingly connected.
One player in the connectivity of New York City is Colin O’Donnell, chief innovation officer at Intersection. He is working on LinkNYC, a first-of-its-kind communications network that intends to essentially blanket the city with fast, free public Wi-Fi. O’Donnell laid out one of the top challenges facing cities seeking to meet user demand.
“Even without population growth, you’ve got twice the demand for connectivity next year, so factoring in population growth ten, fifteen years out, the demands will be a thousand times the demand now,” O’Donnell explained. “So it’s really important to invest in infrastructure.”
His prediction? “WiFi will become more like LTE and LTE more like WiFi,” O’Donnell said, highlighting 3.5 gigahertz and real-time allocation of broadband as promising options. “With greater coordination between access points, we can connect more people.”
Francesca Birks is an associate with Arup, a consulting engineer firm. She focused on the ways technology can help us rethink existing resources, such as the space taken up by outdated phone boxes. “That’s just the start of the list in changing lifestyles,” she said, pointing to the space-saving benefits of autonomous vehicles. “You might not need all the parking spaces we have around the world. Technology creates opportunities for space.”
Lindsey-Paige McCloy, product manager for Research & Development at the Mayor’s Office in New York City, described these and other innovations as in pursuit of a “smart and equitable city approach.” She also posed the question, “How can we use city resources to the benefit of everyone?” Like many others at SXSW 2016, McCloy praised technology for allowing an agile project management process as well as A/B testing to determine what changes truly have the biggest impact for the most people.
Leveraging public-private partnerships for social good
As excited as all the experts were to see technology’s promise for alleviating the woes of our current and future cities, no one seemed to think of infrastructure as “sexy.” That adjective (and others like “hot” and “wild”) was claimed by Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author and professor at the Harvard School of Business. Her latest book, MOVE: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead, was featured on The Daily Show and sets the stage for the problems cities face and points to public-private partnerships – mostly featuring innovative use of technology – to solve the many challenges of transporation.
To Kanter and others at SXSW, addressing challenges cities face is about more than making someone’s commute easier. “Mobility is opportunity,” said Kanter, honing in on issues of equality for all citizens. She further explained the problem: “Cities used to be a negative and you wanted to get out of the city as much as possible. Most transportation systems were designed to get people out. Now, the rich want to move back in and the poor are being moved to the edges where they have transportation problems.”
Joseph Kopser, co-founder and CEO of RideScout, told a story that underlined how closely mobility and access to transportation options are for equality and opportunity. In 2012, he was meeting with a potential partner organization about his app, which analyses all the different transportation modes a person can use to get from Point A to Point – walking, car, bus, bicycle, even taxi or a rideshare – and offers a breakdown of cost and time spent to help a user select their best option.
Yet Kopser’s potential partner couldn’t see why anyone with a car or the ability to hire a taxi would opt for anything else. As Kopser quoted, “‘Son, there are bus people, there are car people and there are taxi people. And I can’t see any reason why they would want to mix.’” As the audience at SXSW laughed, Kopser drove his point home. “We can chuckle at that, but think about the people in our communities who think that way – that people can be personified by their mode of transportation. If we fix these problems now we can integrate our cities and provide upward social mobility.”
Mark Dowd, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology at the Department of Transportation and the Senior Advisor to the Secretary, says the Department of Transportation sees the potential for the future. That’s one reason for the Smart Cities Challenge. But beyond that is immediate effects of saving lives, likely through automated vehicles. Dowd stated that taking humans out of the driving equation can reduce deaths by as much as 80%.
“The quicker we can get to technology that can solve the crash problem, then the quicker we’ll get, too, to reducing climate change, better safety and even better health.”