July 15, 2021

Dear Diary: What is Smart?

By Anna Acosta

Dear Diary,

Welcome to the Thunderdome! In a manner of speaking, at least. If you’re here, presumably it’s because you were made aware of Smart City Diaries, the podcast that I have started with my overwhelmingly enthusiastic mother, Debbie Acosta. She wrote an incredibly eloquent technical introduction to the series, which can be found here – check it out if you haven’t yet. I’m not here to reinvent the wheel or re-cover the ground she has already covered. My role, instead, is to try to fill in the blanks, and to provide perspective from someone who may be just as new to this whole smart city gig as you are. These blogs – or, thematically, these diary entries – are going to be the place where I unpack what we just talked about. My final thoughts, if you will. 

In her blog, Mom (I’d call her Debbie for your sake but honestly? That’s weird and she’s been ‘Mom’ or ‘Mama’ to me since 1991, so I will be sticking with that moniker) quotes the Declaration of Independence. Insert the obligatory “Okay, Boomer” quip here. Mom is a white immigrant, and the child of Dutch immigrants, and as a mixed-race Latinx millennial, I suppose I was bound to feel a little differently about that document than she does. After all, I’ve sat through a citizenship ceremony to support someone who was becoming a citizen – the nationalism is intense, to put it mildly. So I guess I’ll start by saying that a big part of the reason we’re doing this is specifically because we see the world through completely different lenses. 

As humans, we’re pretty much the sum of our experiences. The older we get, the lines between what is nature and what is nurture get much thinner, wavier, and difficult to discern with any amount of certainty. That’s the reality. And the other glaring reality – as the world is inundated with pandemics and climate-change prompted natural disasters and the myriad impacts of centuries of rule by white supremacy – is that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not. (Socially, obviously this is not true. Poor folks and rich folks are “in this together” in the same way that a hungry lion and a weak gazelle are “in this together”. The same can be said across racial, gender, sexual orientation, and disability lines, as well as all of the places those identities can and do intersect – the list goes on.) But in a very literal sense, on some level we are all staring down the barrel of what is increasingly clear to be a defining moment for us as a species and a planet. We started Smart City Diaries because we believe that how we respond to that moment matters, perhaps more than anything ever has. We are here because we believe we can help. 

So – how? If there’s anything we know about tech, it’s that its growth is exponential. We’ve made more technological strides in the last century than in the previous thousand years of recorded western history combined, for better or worse. Even folks like me, whose tech-savviness starts and stops with resetting a wireless router, are aware of it. How can you not be? Meanwhile, the most knowledgeable tech folks seem, from my plebian perspective, to have built their entire sense of identity on gatekeeping the underbelly of tech – what it means, how it works, and the real cost most of us pay in order to keep the advancement train rolling. We are impacted by tech at every moment of every day, and yet we’re told we’re not capable of understanding it while simultaneously being deliberately kept in the dark. We call bullshit, and we’re pretty sure we’re not the only ones.

So here we are. A mother and a daughter, boomer and a millennial, an immigrant and an American, a… I mean, you get it. My mom likes to say she’s here to get it right, not to be right, and I feel the same way. Nobody is born knowing everything, and we’re here to learn and discover, and to hopefully find a better way forward – by listening as much as we speak. (Probably not literally, since it’s a podcast, but – hooray for metaphors!) We’re starting from the viewpoint that cities are where changes really happen, and that the people in these communities are the best shot we’ve got. That is only possible if the world has some degree of mutual communication and transparency from institutions that hold so much power over us all. So given that everything is tech-driven, and that we believe the key to everything is cities, that begs the question: what is a smart city?

We hope you’ll join us in finding out.