New York Trailblazing the Way for a North America Built on ‘Smart Cities’

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Imagine technology that tells you when your garbage has been picked up, when the the snow is removed on your street, or when the busiest time of day at your local park or playground is.

Some of this either already exists in cities across North America, or is part of the pioneering thinking driving so-called “smart city” initiatives from coast to coast.

A city is considered “smart” when it combines information and communication technology (ICT) and the Internet of things (IoT) to help run its assets.

More municipalities, big and small, are using ICT and the IoT to not only offer better, more efficient services, but also as a way to bring equality to their citizens.

Equality is the point of a smart city, says Minerva Tantoco, a senior advisor at Future Perfect Ventures and the former (and first-ever) chief technology officer for the City of New York.

“A smart city can’t be a smart city without also being an equitable city,” Tantoco said during a panel discussion at the BC Tech Summit on Tuesday.

Tantoco spoke about her time developing New York’s Smart + Equitable City strategy, which includes, among other initiatives, a commitment to bring high-speed Internet access to all residents and businesses. The city is also working on a plan to turn its antiquated pay phones into a network of public wifi stations at no cost to taxpayers. Another project is developing a smart park bench that allows the city to know when it’s used most.

“It’s not just about the technology; it’s about humans making lives better,” Tantoco said.

The challenge of course, as with all technology, is balancing the benefits with concerns about information privacy.

By 2019, half of citizens in cities with at least a million people will benefit from smart city programs by voluntarily sharing their personal data, according to Gartner.

“Citizens will experience some of the benefits of sharing data passively, through government and commercial collaboration,” Gartner said.

What’s more, “as this hyperconnectivity picks up pace,” Gartner says citizens will become “more aware of the value of their ‘life data’ and will be willing to proactively exchange it for ‘in the moment’ value.”

It’s the concerns around privacy and security that led New York to develop the world’s first set of guidelines for ensuring the “responsible and equitable deployment of smart city technologies.” The guidelines, which cover everything from privacy and security to data management and infrastructure, have since been adopted by more 20 major cities across the U.S.

Tantoco says the “explosion of data” will require a more mindful approach to how it’s being used, and how to handle the shared interest.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see where the balance between privacy and security and the benefits of having all this amazing data go,” says Tantoco.

An approach New York City has taken is through its Open Data Law, which says that data collected by cities must be made public.

“That’s one way to help equalize and democratize the access to the data being that’s being collected on city streets,” Tantoco says.

The guidelines also underscore the need for governments to work closely with all stakeholders, including citizens and technology companies, to develop a sustainable smart city ecosystem, according to Jessie Adcock, the chief technology officer at the City of Vancouver.

“It’s not just about the city, the business or the government. It’s about the ecosystem that gives rise to innovation,” Adcock said at the BC Tech Summit. “Those cities which have that innovation ecosystem seem to thrive the most.”

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