6. The Boston Smart City Playbook

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This is the sixth episode of the Better Cities; The Contribution of Digital Technology series. It is about the expectations of the Majors Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) in Boston from representatives of tech companies crowding its doors to sell turnkey "smart" solutions. The Dutch versions of the published posts in this series are here.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, former head of MONUM, recalls meeting representatives of a Fortune 500 technology company that had tendered to equip all the city's lampposts with cameras and sensors. When asked if this equipment had already proven its worth elsewhere, the answer was that the company would appreciate Boston investigating it. It goes without saying that the city has resolutely rejected this 'offer'. It was one of many exhausting encounters with eager salespeople offering 'promising' technological solutions, with limited knowledge of urban problems. As a result, Franklin-Hodge and his colleague Nigel Jacob decided to incorporate the feedback normally given to these people into a document that they could share with companies. This became the famous Boston Smart City Playbook, with the primary purpose of propagating Boston's intent to develop technology that is responsible, people-centric and problem-driven.

Below I go through the book, paraphrasing (italics) and commenting on each chapter

Stop sending salespeople

The introduction to the booklet sighs, send us someone who knows about cities, someone who wants to talk to the residents about what they like (and don't like!) about Boston. The MONUM team appreciates when technologists come to talk about topics that matter rather than fire well well-prepared pitches. Shared understanding of urban problems and the nature of their solution is the only way to establish a long-term relationship between the company and the city. The team announces to ask examples of how the product has worked or failed elsewhere.

In addition, I believe that representatives of technology companies who believe that a vendor’s pitch will do, sometimes forget that their interlocutors are technologists too, who are often better educated than themselves. However, civil servants often lack knowledge of successful examples from elsewhere, therefore they sincerely hope that representatives of a technology company can provide these. Unfortunately, that rarely turns out to be the case. The best solution is pre-competitive triple-helix collaboration between representatives of municipalities, knowledge institutions and companies. Together they can compensate for each other's knowledge gaps.

Solving real problems for people

Municipal employees often feel that their colleagues from companies lack involvement and knowledge about the concerns of ordinary people. That's why the Playbook expects them to talk to workers, unemployed, entrepreneurs, artists, citizen groups, advocacy groups and architects before visiting MONUM. The team would like to know what companies have learned during this conversation and especially why their products will make a difference.

Such an assignment is not easy. Citizens are easy to speak out about their problems and come up with solutions too. These solutions rarely have a technological component. The tech companies itself must build bridges and ask citizens for their opinion. Even citizens they don't see the value of the proposed technologies, city councils can still be confident in their long-term value.

Don't worship efficiency

Efficiency must be part of the solution to any problem, as cities have finite resources and infinite needs. However, efficiency is never a motive in the phase in which alternative choices are weighed up. Once a choice has been made, the next step is to implement it as efficiently as possible.
Talking prematurely about efficiency often results from ignoring underlying political positions. The question is always: Efficient on the basis of which criteria, for what purposes and in whose interest? As Ben Green wrote in ''The smart enough city' (p. 14): For those on the front lines, words like “better” and “more efficient” are the tip of an iceberg, below which sit the competing interests and conflicting values of the city and the people who live in it. In my opinion, the same applies to the misuse of the adjective 'smart'.

To become a competent partner, representatives of tech companies must not only be familiar with urban problems, but also with current political debates and the mission of mayor and aldermen. Anyone who mentions arguments such as 'cost savings' and 'efficiency gains' as main motives in the discussion about technological solutions for urban problems will immediately be questioned about the real benefits and for whom.

Better decisions, not (just) better data

The price for the purchase of technology must be paid immediately. Often a city can only reap its benefits in the future. The problem is that the success of the technology acquired will depend at least as much on how it is applied. This in turn depends on the behavior of the people involved. The often have to adapt themselves and targeted management is required to bring about behavioral change. Technological innovation usually goes hand in hand with social innovation or at least behavioral change. This could be, for example, breaking through silos between departments whose data must be shared. In essence, the quality of the data depends on its ability to improve decisions. Better decisions, in turn, should pay off in greater satisfaction for all stakeholders involved.

In my opinion, representatives of tech companies do not think enough about the 'soft side' of implementing technological change. In addition, they neglect after-sales contacts, which can provide them with valuable information about the impact of organizational conditions on technological innovation.

Platforms make us go ¯\_(**ツ)_/¯

In 2015, Ross Atkin, a critic of smart cities, wrote his Manifesto for the clever city. In the 'clever city', technology is used radically bottom-up to solve the problems that ordinary citizens experience with as little data as possible and in a way that citizens can understand. In the smart city, 'platforms' are often proposed as networks of sensors that collect huge amounts of data because they can potentially be used to solve problems. But many problems that affect people, such as pollution, stench and particulate matter, have been known for years, as have their causes: factories, heavy traffic and unhealthy homes. Installing a sensor network delays the resolution of these problems and is at the expense of it.

Moreover, because of vendor lock-in municipalities risk being stuck for years to solutions that companies have developed, as long as there are no standards or there is no guarantee of interoperability. Representatives of technology companies should be asked what they believe to be the cheapest solution for collecting critical data and what the interoperability of this solution is.

Towards a "public" privacy policy

Police monitor video cameras throughout the city and transit companies use GPS trackers to detect the location of buses and trains. Since the observation of people in public space is increasing rapidly, the question is what is the bottom-line of privacy of citizens that must always be respected. Representatives of tech companies should be surveyed to make explicit the privacy risks of their technologies and whether these technologies meet data minimization requirements.

In my opinion, it is up to cities to draw up guidelines about internet safety, privacy security and data minimization, but also to make explicit which means are acceptable for crime prevention and law enforcement. The development of such guidelines is also an opportunity for pre-competitive collaboration between cities, companies, and knowledge institutions.

Ben Green, also a former member of the MONUM team and now a teacher at the Ford School of Public Policy, Michigan University, also refers to the Smart City Playbook in his work 'The smart enough city' and emphasizes that the last thing to happen is considering technology as imminent and inevitable, thus beyond dispute and deliberation (p. 7). Technology must always be justified by its proven contribution to human well-being.

Follow up

The Boston Smart City Play Book makes it clear that before they can provide 'solutions', tech companies must become familiar with urban problems, preferably through direct contact with stakeholders and citizens in particular. In addition, cities also want to be involved in the development of these technologies.
The Playbook spawned a series of research and development projects, including the Local Sense Lab, a loose group of sensor technologists developing sensors and other devices of demonstrable value to Boston residents.

Read the Boston Smart City Playbook by following the link below


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