Welcome to episode 89 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Hey, Jon. What’s new in the land of The Digital Life?
I thought this week we could talk a little bit about what’s becoming an increasingly important trend in the overall industry of the Internet of Things, which is smart cities, those cities that are outfitted with ways of collecting data, whether it’s for their traffic or for municipal vehicles. Perhaps you’d include security cameras and such in that.
All of that data is made available to improve, hopefully, the lives of urban residents and make things run more smoothly, sort of looking at the city as this living and breathing thing, like a quantified self for the city, the smart city. The reason that’s on my mind today is because, boy, Boston could sure use some help coordinating all of the pieces of machinery for the snow removal here, because boy do we have a lot of it.
Yeah, so god, it sounds good on paper, but using Boston as the example, when is the last time that Boston has coordinated anything well and affordably and properly? I mean, the smart city sounds like a government boondoggle waiting to happen, no?
There’s some good examples of … at least from the traffic patterns optimization side of things. I know Los Angeles, for instance, has put together a system to coordinate all its traffic lights during rush hour, which is, I guess, basically eternal over in LA. Saving people time, and in the case of autos, saving fuel and emissions and greenhouse gases, and all of that, just by coordinating the traffic signals a little bit better.
But yeah, there’s this need for it to be not just … to your point, not just a government boondoggle, a government controlled aspects where it’s like Big Brother telling you where to go and what to do, and more of a public-private, and even maybe academic institution, collaboration where all of these different stakeholders and parties can have input into these data sets and make something happen. Yeah, the cynic in me would agree with you, that wow, that’s just a way that we can spend a bunch more money outfitting the city with sensors and then really not realize the return on investment that’s promised.
Yeah, you know when you say smart cities, I’m thinking about a system, right? Once I sort of jabbed at the inevitable government inefficiency, you pointed out, “Hey, look, there already are sensors that are tracking traffic patterns and are having some good impact.” Amen, brother, right on.
But the promise, what’s so tantalizing about the idea of a smart city, is some kind of central planning, is some kind of, “Here are 50 interesting systems built on the Internet of Things that are coordinated and talking to each other and centrally controlled,” and the consequence of that is massive improvements to information that is being fed to citizens to improve their lives or to how operationally the city can optimize all of the different moving parts of the services that they provide to make them better and get to the next level.
Yeah, I mean, if smart city … and this is not an area of expertise for me, so when people are talking about smart city, maybe they are just talking about the granular, of like, “Hey, here’s a tool and this tool can do something neat.” Yeah, that’s going to happen. It is happening, and it’s just going to be more. The thing that would be great, but the thing that we suck at, is using our municipal government to create a central plan that really does interesting things. That’s what I’d love to see, but it just seems like it would be hard as hell to get to.
Yeah, I think it’s critical that we be able to figure out at least part of that puzzle, because we’ve got these pressing problems of energy consumption, for instance, which cities are giant consumers of electricity, especially with office buildings. There’s just this using lots and lots of power, using lots and lots of resources, water, for instance, sewage system, another example, and all of these things, better coordination, better use of these resources, is going to be very important for our planet’s survival.
Additionally, the planet’s having a little something to say about our use of resources in the form of global warming. Boston is actually a leader in terms of doing some planning around resiliency for rising sea levels, because of course Boston is a port city. Even there you can see how having some level of understanding of the data that, in this case, is coming from the rising sea levels is going to be critical for people to be able to even live in port cities in the future.
It may not be something that has immediately greater returns than perhaps some optimized traffic patterns or perhaps better deployment of municipal services like snow removal, but in the long term, when we’re dealing with these big problems like large amounts of energy consumption from our buildings and rising sea levels, I think it’s essential that we get much, much smarter about the kinds of things that are going on within our cities.
Yeah, yeah, that’s definitely true. How do you see it happening? You mentioned earlier getting academics involved, but from my perspective, that’s the blind leading the blind. If you talk about bureaucratic efficiency, government and academia, that’s not a recipe for success, so how does this … I don’t know. To you, how does this happen?
Yeah, so I was just riffing on that because I saw that my alma mater, Boston University, is putting together a public-private consortium or received some funding to do that to uplevel some of their initial experiments with things like data tracking for traffic patterns and things like that. That reference was just a … might have been kind of a selfish reminder of my alma mater.
In terms of this happening, I think part of this is definitely going to have to come from the municipal and city planning services, for sure. Probably is going to be done in coordination with some very large companies, like Cisco, or IBM is big into smart cities. My guess is, if you’re familiar with the Big Dig project, which was a decade long construction project to do the underwater tunnel here to the airport basically, it just took a lot of money.
Unfortunately, that’s really not the lean, agile way to do it, the way we would think like a software development or even a software and hardware development project should go. Nonetheless, I think it’s going to require some pretty big players in order to outfit a city, a small one like Boston or much bigger ones.
Yeah, so you mentioned the expense of the Big Dig, and that was hugely over budget, right? I think by 2 or 3x, right? Not just 10% but some gigantic amount. I may be overstating it, or understating it, I’m not sure, but it’s huge. When you’re dealing with governments doing these big projects, you have those money issues, but I think more critically, you have time issues. What I mean by that is, luckily for the city of Boston, tunnel technology advances at a glacial pace. If you start a tunnel in 1990-whatever and finish it in 2000-whatever, it’s still going to be acceptable. It’s still going to be appropriate.
If you have some big smart city project and it takes you a decade to roll it out, the technology is going to have changed 3 or 4 or 5 or more times over over that time. You’re already going to be outdated. The typical slow bureaucratic governmental processes of getting things done will almost certainly doom these projects to be these really odd situations, where you have cities that invest in all of this infrastructure and then it’s already gone. It’s already outdated.
Another issue too is equity, from the standpoint that you have cities like Detroit that are broke and bankrupt. There’s no way in hell that they’re going to have a digital city going on, whereas someplace like San Francisco will be the first or among the first to do it. There’s already a huge divide between the opportunities of the people in Detroit to the opportunities to the people in San Francisco. That’s only going to be magnified as the digital divide is brought into the very infrastructural fabric of the communities that we live in. It’s really exciting, but it’s also … It’s a little scary for the municipalities that are not very wealthy.
Yeah, tying it to infrastructure like your roads, your bridges, the electric power grid, that’s probably the way to think about it, because as you pointed out, these are going to be so important to the way a city is managed in the future. It’s interesting that you contrasted Detroit with San Francisco. There’s no doubt that Detroit’s going to suffer for lack of that digital infrastructure.
Interestingly enough, what Detroit does have is an awful lot of abandoned buildings and real estate, which I know they’ve been doing in creative ways, using those assets in creative ways to do urban farming, for instance. We’ll definitely have to circle back to this discussion about cities, generally speaking, but from a smart city standpoint, I think you’re right.
It’s probably going to increase this digital divide, and with the city being sort of the focal point for so many industries now, like you think of Boston, you think of health, you think of San Francisco, you think of the tech industry, New York, you think of finance, these are the magnets for these industries. It makes it all that much more important that the cities be functioning at a high level and able to attract people to come in and be part of them. Ultimately, smart cities are going to be incredible for the people and the places that can implement them, and will probably make it even more difficult for the ones who cannot.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just 1 L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O, dot com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Email me, email@example.com. I guess that’s it.
Yeah. That’s it for episode 89 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.