Monday, October 30, 2017

How can Baltimore become a smart city?

Every city wants to be a smart city but hardly anybody knows what it means. So everyone can create their own definition. There is much money to be made from selling cities something that presumably makes them smart. Local officials, non-profits and citizen activists find themselves between wanting to be smart and a barrage of sales pitches from manufacturers and IT companies that sell solutions before the right questions are asked. The below definition of smart city involves the main pillars: people and equity, access, information technology and sustainable use of resources.

city can be defined as 'smart' when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory action. Caragliu and Nijkamp 2009 (definitions)
Under these criteria few would describe Baltimore as a smart city, neither on the people empowerment, social capital, and equity side, nor on the governance side (effective use of resources). Not because the streetlights aren't controlled by motion sensors or because they don’t have WiFi. Those are simply possible solutions that have strong vendors (lighting manufacturers) who think that the maximum amount of data collected automatically equates smartness, without first asking whom do the data really serve? There is too much that doesn't work right in Baltimore, from schools to traffic signals and from bus transport to crime, health and potholes, for calling the city smart. So much is going wrong that even understanding what the smartest thing would be to do first is a challenge. I.e. which knob to turn with the smallest effort to create a positive feedback loop.
Imagine that Baltimore’s street lights automatically came on when they sensed someone was near, collected data about air quality and even alerted police at the sound of a gunshot. Such futuristic-sounding technology may not be so far off in Baltimore. (Sarah Gantz, Baltimore SUN)
As the earlier quoted definition shows, smart cities can't only focus on whether they are governed smartly, they also have to pay attention to how well citizens are organized, how good education is, how strong civil mindedness is (social capital) and whether citizens have a fair chance of participating in the all encompassing digital world. Looking at it that way, WiFi on street lamps could indeed be helpful.

Baltimore residents know that often there is no lack of data but a lack of knowing what to do with data. When the US-DOT issued a "smart city challenge" in 2015 Baltimore did the smart thing and sent an application. (see article  on this blog in March 2016). Baltimore was not one of the seven finalists selected by DOT. In September of 2016 the Obama administration expanded the challenge and the National Science Foundation issued another solicitation  "planning  money" under the title "Smart and Connected Cities" (S&CC). Baltimore applied in February this year. Now a $100,000 grant was awarded which will be administered by a group of academic institutions under the program officer Gerrit Knaap, head of UM's National Center for Smart Growth. Hopkins University, Morgan University, UB's Neighborhood Indicators Alliance and the West Baltimore Innovation Village are part of the team.
Successful S&CC projects are expected to pursue research and research capacity-building activities that integrate multiple disciplinary perspectives and undertake meaningful community engagement, and to include appropriate and robust evaluation plans for assessing activities and outcomes.(Solicitation)
The new planning grant represents an excellent opportunity of keeping the original coalition alive which worked on the large challenge grant application and which included five working groups with public and private partners and the encompassing topics such as energy, technology and transportation. In an upcoming meeting on Thursday the partnersfor the new grant should really discuss on what components of the original B'smart application they could build, just like some of the other cities did which didn't get the initial big challenge grant prize of $50 million. (It went to Columbus, OH).
Smart City Baltimore?
These Places Lost the Smart Cities Challenge. But They Say They Ended Up Ahead. (Governing)
Meanwhile Mayor Pugh is focusing on governance. She is betting on making Baltimore smart by paying top dollars for her Chief Information Officer Frank Johnson who started his job recently ($250,000) and by including Baltimore in the line-up of Bloomberg Cities. Pugh's emphasis on technology in the service of running an innovative city follows one of her predecessors, former Mayor O’Malley. He had also complained about how departments didn’t use up-to-date technology and data to properly assign their scarce resources. His data-driven efficiency in public governance through CitiStat became a hallmark of his time as Mayor. CitiStat still exists but lost a lot of its luster under the previous mayors. It will be interesting to see how Baltimore's local government will interact with the academic team around the small $100k seed grant.

Innovation Village West Baltimore has put its aim around making citizens tech savvy and using tech as leverage to empowerment and equity by bridging the digital divide. That also had been the main tenor of Baltimore's original smart city challenge grant application submitted under Rawlings Blake. Even though the application failed to win, its main tenet is still worth mentioning here:
The Baltimore Vision for Smart City (B’Smart) is a bold step forward that connects communities to opportunities, starting with historically underserved neighborhoods in West Baltimore that bore the brunt of displacement and disconnection through the construction of the “highway to nowhere” in the 1960’s and 1970’s. To transform Baltimore into a city of greater economic prosperity and social equity, it is vital to successfully demonstrate how smart city technologies can better connect low-income communities, often with limited access to Internet and smartphones, to economic opportunities, and how these technologies integrate with the existing infrastructure and create new prospects within these communities.(From the application)
The original Baltimore smart challenge application
The application focuses on the creation of technology hubs at transit hubs and makes the connection between equity and access, both physical as virtual access. meaning transportation and internet. The application states:A primary focus of B’Smart is to solve unique and often understudied issues regarding smart city technology deployment in low-income communities, such as low smartphone/internet market share, low car ownership, price sensitivity, citizen education and community security. In addition to meeting USDOT expectations on all 12 Vision Elements, Baltimore has designed andplans to implement smart city solutions that are especially valuable in low-income communities and highlighted with a “Ladders of Opportunity” symbol in the narratives below.
The issue of the digital divide has been further illuminated by a brandnew report form the Robert Deutsch Foundation titled Digital Access and Equity.
While many interviewees described promising programs or initiatives, they also noted a lack of cohesive strategy and collaboration across sectors in Baltimore. (Deutsch Report) 
Research suggests that Baltimore lags behind many cities when it comes to the number of households with home internet connections, with the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey ranking Baltimore 261 out of 296 cities surveyed. According to this same source, an estimated 74,116 households in Baltimore have no internet access. The national research indicating that lower-income and racial minority households are disproportionately disconnected from the internet could translate into particular concerns for Baltimore. (Deutsch Report) 

The ultimate step towards Baltimore's smartness will be how the many initiatives, including the new grant, will be fitted into a cohesive strategy which encompasses all the important pillars of a smart city,  from empowerment of people through transportation and digital access to more efficient governance through technology and data.

Baltimore's problem has never been a lack of initiatives or innovation. What is still lacking is coordination, communication, transparency and unified leadership, all preconditions for creating a virtuous cycle and a truly smart city.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Universities to study how to turn Baltimore into a Smart City (SUN)
Governing: These Places Lost the Smart Cities Challenge. But They Say They Ended Up Ahead.

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