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Kate Bell, Program Manager, NextEnergy

Pop Quiz: What is the definition of a smart city?

If you’re having trouble narrowing down an answer, you aren’t alone. Chances are that if you asked ten different strangers this question, you’d receive ten different responses. Some would highlight the possibilities for integrating futuristic technologies like self-driving cars or flying taxis into daily life. Others would emphasize improving data-driven governance through sensors feeding into an internet of things or efficiency gains via cloud computing. There’s also a real possibility that you might not receive an answer, but a puzzled look instead.

Even experts and municipal leaders at the helm of the smart cities movement have difficulty reaching a consensus on what exactly makes a city “smart.” A recent Smart Cities Dive survey asked city officials from the 25 largest metro areas in the United States to define what a smart city is today and how that definition has changed during their tenure. The answers were as unique as the cities themselves.

Row of smart bikes

San Francisco’s leaders, for example, offer a tech-forward view and identify smart cities as those that employ modern innovations such as wireless devices that can communicate real-time conditions to inform policy decisions. Officials in Portland, Oregon, take a justice-oriented approach, defining a smart city as one that leverages technology and data specifically to improve the lives of and prevent additional harm to chronically underserved communities. And some cities, like Boston and Orlando, now try to avoid the term altogether, opting instead for phrases like “future-ready” to shift the focus away from specific technologies and towards a more holistic, collaborative, and community-centered approach to building better cities.

It’s clear that advanced, connected technologies will play a role in the cities of the future, no matter the location. It is also clear that technology alone is not a panacea for the challenges cities face. The debate appears to be over two questions: 1) how central the role that technology can—and should—play in solving the problems those cities’ residents will face; and 2) to what extent residents can choose which solutions make sense for their respective communities. These are exactly the questions we seek to answer at NextEnergy as we expand our practice into the smart cities space.

To us, smart cities are equitable, forward-looking cities: those able to capture the benefits of next-generation technologies in tandem with ambitious policy and thoughtful urban planning to improve energy efficiency, reliability, sustainability, safety, and quality of life for all residents. While information and communication technologies that improve the performance of interconnected infrastructure are necessary components, our view is that there is no universal, one-size-fits-all technology package cities can adopt to achieve “smart” status. Instead, we believe solutions deployment must be tailored to the specific needs of each individual city and its residents’ unique priorities. We believe that constituents must have a stake in and use for the solutions and technologies that can solve their most pressing issues. And we also believe that with the right tools, any city can be a smart city—not just major population centers or resource-rich areas.

Addressing the problems that smart city technologies and practices are slated to answer, such as reaching net-zero carbon emissions, is no small task. Yet we believe cities are well poised to help meet this critical moment. While comprehensive federal action and funding is currently stymied by increased political polarization and delayed due to time-consuming bureaucratic delays among agencies, cities have the ability to act nimbly and quickly to craft solutions that meet their residents’ immediate needs and long-term goals. Cities don’t need to enter a technological arms race or equip their residents with flashy yet unpragmatic amenities to get there. What’s needed instead is a roadmap for how to incorporate existing resources and supportive technology solutions into residents’ long-term planning goals. Building out that roadmap is what our organization aims to accomplish as we enter 2022.

The moment for building equitable, forward-looking, and smart cities of all sizes is here. At NextEnergy, we are committed to leveraging our technical expertise in solutions deployment in meeting this moment head-on. Interested in learning more about our work in the smart cities space or would like to share your thoughts? Please feel free to reach out to me via email at kateb@nextenergy.org or on LinkedIn.

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