Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The real question a Smart City has to answer

Bloomberg, Harvard, Google and ATT, the private, institutional and philanthropic side are all challenging cities to jump on the bandwagon of being smart. By smart they mean embrace innovation and technology, take my challenge and buy my product. After it has become clear that not much can be expected from the federal government in urban affairs,  the efforts of pushing cities forward have gone into overdrive.
Pugh and Bloomberg Philanthropies: Back from the Mayor's conference

Mayor Pugh is part of an "inaugural team" of 40 municipal leaders who works with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.
Today’s local government leaders are grappling with growing and complex challenges while trying to provide real results for citizens. While national governments around the world struggle, mayors must find new ways to use limited resources and deliver a wide range of services for growing populations. The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative equips mayors and their senior leaders with cutting-edge tools and techniques to more effectively tackle pressing management challenges faced in their cities.
Through a $32 million initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard University are collaborating to provide hundreds of city leaders customized executive education focused on leadership and innovation in governance. The City Leadership Initiative blends the public sector innovation expertise of the Harvard Kennedy School and the management expertise of the Harvard Business School with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ global network and experience in more than 200 cities.
Smart City image
No doubt, the City and the Mayor can use all the help  they can get, problems to solve abound. Best practices in other places can help, no point of reinventing the wheel in every burg. But one has to wonder whether good governance is really all about innovation and data as those organizations frequently suggest. One has to ask whether the quest for efficiency and more bang for the buck is always the most important goal. Efficiency is usually what is proposed by the innovators and the base for what is to be measured, equipped with sensors and loaded up with technology that can provide data.

One wouldn't expect those critical, bigger questions to come from the private industry which directly gains from selling technology and hardware such as Cisco, General Electric, ATT and Siemens. The matter should be different for philantropy, foundations and universities. It is time they put technology into the larger context of equity, social justice and quality of life.
The latest Bloomberg "challenge" is maybe a bit too breathless:
U.S. mayors face bigger challenges than ever before. Innovation is no longer optional; it’s necessary so cities can continue to deliver results and improve life for residents.
The 2017 Mayors Challenge, sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is designed with this urgency in mind. It’s an initiative to help city leaders think big, be bold, and uncover inventive — and, ultimately, shareable — ideas that tackle today’s toughest problems.
With Baltimore's Mayor so plugged in one can expect a mayoral push for technology and some of it was already on display when Pugh asked for more computers in police cars and for gun audio sensors on light-poles. But would computers in every squad car guarantee good policing and crime reduction? Is Baltimore's problem one of missing data or isn't it much more fundamental as the report form the Justice Departments suggests?
Vacant houses and data

Data collection, dissemination and interpretation was obviously front and center on Friday's Data Day organized by the University of Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. The emphasis on data and modeling reminded me of an American-German professor who commuted between Berkely and Stuttgart, the latter was my alma mater while he taught there. I doug out a paper titled "Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning"  written by Professor Horst Rittel who was incredibly prescient when he observed right on the second page that
 "the tests for efficiency that were once so useful as measures of accomplishment are being challenged by a renewed preoccupation with consequences for equity." (Rittel, Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning 1973)
Doesn't this sound like a current day insight we consider fresh and new? Just like the following sentence could come from an editorial in the age of Trump:
"A deep running current of optimism in American thought seems to have been propelling these diverse searches for direction finding instruments. But at the same time, the American faith in guaranteed progress is being eroded by the same waves that are wearing down old beliefs in the social order's inherent goodness and in history's intrinsic benevolence."
Rittel demanded back then that we "must learn to look at our objectives as critically and as professionally as we look at our models".  In other words, the best data and models don't do anything if they are fed with the wrong questions or if data and models are deployed without a proper value proposition.

Rittel described urban planning rife with "wicked problems". Unlike mathematical equations they don't have just a true or false answer; instead, Rittel says, they have "good or bad" solutions. Early on he asks the question about equity very soon followed by the admonition that we need to be as careful with the objectives as we are with our models.

While it is certainly progress that Baltimore Housing now has reasonably accurate maps that show which houses and parcels are vacant, that knowledge is futile if it isn't guided by a larger idea of where to take this city and what role abandoned properties should play in that vision. There is no way of answering the question of "demolition or restoration?" with the collected data or the maps not even when they are overlaid with a dozen other maps unless there is a notion about people. People that live in the communities already, people Baltimore may attract and where and how those people would like to live.

Revitalization of disenfranchised communities requires a creative approach that imagines something different than an extrapolation of data or a projection from the past into the future. "The future ain't what it used to be" is a saying falsely attributed to the famed Yogi Berra, but it is true nonetheless. The creative imagination is likely to come from Cisco, Siemens or GE and it probably won't come from Bloomberg either.

Baltimore has a new zoning code, it will soon have a green network plan and it may soon also have a Complete Streets legislation. But what it doesn't have is a simple descriptor what kind of city we want to see in 20-30 years. No amount of data will answer this question unless we are satisfied with "business as usual" which would give us an extrapolation of current trends. But that wouldn't be a pretty picture.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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