Every mayor wants their city to be “smart,” but harder is doing what takes to increase the IQ of inanimate infrastructure, or finding the money or people to make it possible. Despite budget crunches and bureaucracy, cities around the world are finding ways to collect data, build digital networks, and make urban spaces downright genius. Taken together, these six features will likely serve as the foundation for cities of the future.
6. Community Microgrids
Established just last year — in March 2017 it had just 50 enrollees — it’s a promising example of peer-to-peer networking. Here’s how it works: Brooklynites on the grid can buy green energy from their friends — on the blockchain, the digital currency exchange on which bitcoin operates — at a price they negotiate. They pay only $18.05 to the utility company, which is the minimum required to remain on the central grid in case of emergency.
This idea isn’t confined to Brooklyn, as microgrid projects are lighting up everywhere, from Germany to Bangladesh, a country where millions don’t have access to a central grid. These types of peer-to-peer microgrids are increasingly essential to cities where full-sized power grids are susceptible to blackouts. They also reduce the amount of energy lost in transferring it from producer to user, and better connect citizens.
5. Data-Collecting Dump Trucks
The Public Works department in Cambridge, Massachusetts is rather unremarkable. Like similar departments in cities across the country, “The Works” picks up trash and keeps the community clean. But because it happens to be in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s backyard, it’s sometimes persuaded to try something radically new.
In May, MIT’s Senseable City Lab retrofitted five of the city’s dump trucks with data-collecting sensors. Now, as the vehicles trundle down their route, they pick up not just trash, but important information on everything from energy leaks to air quality. The data is sent back to the city of Cambridge, which can make more data-driven decisions like whether to alter the design of an intersection, or deploy a department official to deal with a blown gasket or burst pipe that might not otherwise have been identified.
This isn’t the only example of a roving data collector being set loose upon the city. Google Street View has tracked otherwise invisible contributors to climate change and dangerous air pollution patterns in Oakland, California.
4. Free, Quality Wifi
New York City once had 7,500 pay phones, allowing citizens to connect with anyone else in the world for a few cents. These days, the pay phone is dead and the internet king, but 10 percent of all Americans lack access to broadband according to a 2016 report from the Federal Communications Commission. LinkNYC, which has put hundreds of free WiFi kiosks on the streets of New York City, aims to fix this. Their units provide free public wifi — a big boon to foreign tourists without international plans — as well as charging ports, public service announcements, and buttons to trigger an emergency response.
The LinkNYC system, which is free to users and funded by advertising, is just one example of how public wifi can really work and the impact connectivity can create. Free internet access is seen as a boon to tourism, a way of coordinating disaster relief and emergency response, and even a tool for education. It can also generate enormous amounts of data when passersby log on, which can in turn be used by cities (and, of course, corporations) to better understand residents and their needs. Some think LinkNYC-style projects could one day put an end to cell companies.
3. Pay-as-You-Throw Garbage Disposal
The small island nation of Taiwan in the South China Sea is widely considered home to the world’s best trash collection system. As the design podcast 99 Percent Invisible reported, the Taiwanese government subtly nudges its citizens into more environmentally-friendly choices. Instead of charging all citizens a flat fee, Taiwan charges by the liter — and caps the size of trash bins at just 120 liters. What’s more, instead of allowing people to leave their trash curbside and have it carted away in the night, the Taiwanese have to take it to the truck themselves at one of several appointed pick-up times each day. Out on the street, trash officials help residents sort their recyclables into 13 different bins — and charge them $200 if they don’t comply.
Right now, no system in the United States is nearly as strict, but some cities, including San Jose, California and Dover, New Hampshire, implemented “pay-as-you-throw” systems back in the 1990s and, the EPA reported at the time, saw up to 35 percent reductions in the amount of trash locals generated. While imperfect, these solutions are widely considered to be an important tool in encouraging reducing, reusing, recycling, and reaching those “zero waste” goals.
2. Ride-Sharing and Traffic Management
Bay Area residents spend 83 hours a year in traffic and $1,735 a year in waste fuel and paid parking costs, according to a 2017 report by INRIX Research. But parking apps, self-driving (and self-parking) cars, and other radical traffic-busting proposals aim to change that.
Take ParkingPanda.com, one of dozens of tools that allow San Franciscans to find and reserve parking spots. It provides a map organized according to the price of parking, along with details on disability access and bathrooms.
Unfortunately, as a privately-owned company, ParkingPanda’s data is fundamentally limited. That’s why smart city advocates hope that, one day, cities will take transportation information services like this on themselves. Who wouldn’t want to live somewhere with coordinated efforts to keep people out of traffic and moving on with their lives?
1. Citizen Planning
To make smart cities truly genius, people will have to work together. That’s the idea behind City Swipe, which The Guardian called a Tinder-style urban planning app. The app allows people to vote on the things they like about their cities — and the things they don’t. Theoretically, cities could put questions typically reserved for city council meetings on everyone’s phones. While City Swipe is more of a thought experiment and currently limited to Santa Monica, California, it’s proof that good design can bring people together in the shared smart city pursuit.