July 15, 2021

Laying the Groundwork

By Deborah Acosta

As technology professionals, we are convinced that technology can and will accelerate the ability of cities to meet the needs and desires of their residents, businesses, and visitors more effectively and for less cost. We are only beginning to ask: is this technology trustworthy? Given the existential challenges of climate change, systemic inequality, and ineffective resource distribution, how do we build trustworthy systems within Cities, within technology and with each other?

Through the Smart City Diaries podcast, Mother-Daughter co-hosts Anna and Deborah Acosta will explore what it means to be a Smart City through a framework that puts people – not technology – at its center. 

A Smart City Framework

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.  United States Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

The American crises of 2020 (COVID-19 global pandemic, Black Lives Matter, Asian American & Pacific Islanders Against Hate, Climate Change, and more) demand we remember that the United States of America was founded by imperfect, property-owning white men, often slave-owners, whose Declaration regarding “certain unalienable Rights” was aspirational. They left it to future generations and evolving community, social and economic development insights to work toward their vision of “a more perfect Union”. 

Cities and communities, whatever their size, are where most of us live. In the year 2021, what is their rightful role in creating places where all their residents – regardless of age, race, culture, gender, religious affiliation, or citizenship – find the belonging and support needed to reach their full potential, however broad or limited that potential might be? 

Our premise is simple: it’s time to broaden the definition of a Smart City to begin not with technology, but with acknowledgement that human rights, equitable distribution of baseline resources based on needs, and individual resilience to the existential crises of climate change must be our baseline. A Smart City begins with defining and meeting the basic needs of its people, embedding these priorities in its governing documents and through its behavior and actions. 

Within this framework, a Smart City views technology as a set of tools that enable local government to better serve the needs of all individuals in their community and to reduce the costs of delivering those services. Tech is not, however, the only tool. We need to begin with looking at existing city systems, acknowledging the vulnerability of specific people and communities in those systems, before we begin to buy into the panacea of Smart City technology. 

Cities and Redefining “Smart”

Most of us live in cities and communities. The inequities are visible if we simply look: homelessness, unequal access to education and living wage jobs, lack of access to the internet and digital tools, cost of living, lack of generational wealth for communities of color due to systemic racism, lack of equitable access to health care, the economic and cultural divides experienced by younger generations compared to the Baby Boomer generation. The failure of most communities to bridge these gaps causes questions about the trustworthiness of existing institutions, which can be amplified when technology is introduced into the City ecosystem. 

Cities, large and small, urban and rural, are expected to deliver basic resources needed for residents to survive and thrive. Living wage jobs, affordable housing, power, food, clean water, sanitation, transportation, education, police, and fire services are baseline services that communities generally work to deliver. The challenge for cities today is to acknowledge that existing systems largely were created based on the experience and needs of its largely mono-cultured founders. City infrastructure and governance regulations were not built to serve equitably the needs of diverse populations with disparate life experiences.

Today, technology is viewed by most cities globally as a potentially powerful and cost-effective way to address growing urbanization challenges. Today, 54% of people worldwide live in cities, a proportion expected to reach 66% by 2050. Migration to cities will increasingly be motivated by climate change impacts, forcing cities to figure out how to meet the basic needs of increasingly diverse populations. Technology will be viewed as a way to meet these needs within limited budgets and geographies. Whether technology is able to meet the needs and desires of these increasingly diverse individuals will depend on the ability of these individuals to co-create their Smart City – a City that invites a sense of love and belonging for everyone who lives, works and plays there. 

On a personal note, I am thrilled to be able to have the opportunity to embark on this journey of Smart City discovery and inter-generational trust building with my daughter, Anna Maria Susana Acosta. Baby Boomer and Millennial; Smart City Professional and Musician, Writer, Culture Warrior; White American and LatinX American. 

Echoing the words of Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston whose work on vulnerability has changed my life: I’m here to get it right, not to be right. Let’s figure out what a Smart City looks like – together.