Building a smarter future for cities

Communities / Article

Susan Crawford, Co-Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, during the closing lunch presentation at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar 2015, held at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel. Photo by Patrick Farrell. 

Think of a smart city, only smarter. A city where a deluge of data generated from sensors, smartphones, and economic reporting pulse through fiber-optic cables to open platforms where they can be sliced, diced and displayed publicly.

Author Susan Crawford calls it “The Responsive City,” in a book by the same name. Such cities, besides being economically agile, help democracy function by making government more transparent and steering citizen debates away from ideology and toward data-centric problem-solving.

Chicago is one major city heading in this direction. Its project, the Array of Things, places sensors on light posts that can pick up important data points on the street below – noise, air quality, temperature. The data is then used by the city, and is also available to anyone on an open platform. While the project is currently being piloted, the data has the potential to tell people the healthiest routes for walking around the city, or guide the local government in knowing which streets to salt during winter storms. The light post sensors, themselves are also beautifully designed by the Art Institute of Chicago.

Crawford co-authored her book with Stephen Goldsmith; the full title is The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data Smart Governance. It builds on the concept of smart cities, which use technology and community data to drive daily decisions in a more automated way, to responsive cities, which add human empathy and compassion to chart a better future for communities..

Creating responsive cities is key to ensuring that cities are more agile and economically resilient, she told a Knight Foundation-sponsored gathering of community foundation leaders, many of whom have led information projects in their own communities across the country.

Crawford pointed out though that these types of efforts will not be possible without the widespread adoption of fiber optics, which transmit more data and information than traditional cables and offer a host of opportunities for people and communities that are still ripe for discovery.

The difference, she said, between current U.S. Internet services and ubiquitous fiber is as great as the leap from “no Internet access to Internet access, no electricity to electricity,” stressing that the leap will not happen unaided.

So far, the United States has 11 million fiber-to-home connections – better than Europe’s adoption rate but far behind China’s. The call to action for local foundation and community leaders, she said, is to help local governments ensure that every community is on track to adopt fiber; the only way to transport the deluge of data headed our way.

Marika Lynch is a communications consultant for Knight Foundation