The Juxtaposition Of Smart Cities And Values
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The Juxtaposition Of Smart Cities And Values

Dan Ault, Assistant Town Manager, Chief Innovation Officer, Town of Cary
Dan Ault, Assistant Town Manager,  Chief Innovation Officer, Town of Cary

Dan Ault, Assistant Town Manager, Chief Innovation Officer, Town of Cary

The working definition of Smart Cities that I use is “connecting the right people, at the right time, with the right information”. I like this definition because it speaks to the timeless nature of the topic, and it emphasizes the simplistic nature of the practice of smart cities. Being mindful of the simplicity of this definition I find helpful to orientate myself and to set the stage for a broader conversation on smart cities.

The topic of smart cities is incredibly wide-ranging and has naturally become consumed by the technology world. This process is an essential step that’s part of the technological modernization of cities. It’s also a paradox that has slowed and now threatens the manifestation of smart cities into the operations of cities (local) governments. Despite decades of smart cities activities, events, investments, and publicities. The organizational behaviors within government and civic institutions lags. This should come as no surprise because the smart cities industry is not tethered to civic institutions. As a result, the smart cities industry has stayed in “imagination land” driven by consumer technology and sales goals.

The move to systemic change requires us to begin to the think beyond the buzzwords of smart cities. This includes and isn’t limited to data driven decisions, hot spots on maps, pothole requests and dashboards of council districts. Make no mistake about these are items that I have used and continue to use to ignite the imagination necessary to evolve how cities function. I like to think of these as stage one smart cities thinking. However, stage one doesn’t drive systemic change; it becomes a specialized aesthetic change that can prevent systemic change.

Technological advancement produces systemic innovation when it is ingrained locally into the governance and supporting infrastructure. For this reason, it is important to emphasize that smart cities concepts take root in operation of cities.We will know it has taken root in the operations of local government when smart cities have evolved into new standards for cities operations that elevate all aspects of civics. Realizing this greater manifestation requires stage two smart cities thinking.

In essence, the stage of smart cities thinking contemplates the behaviors necessary to meaningfully engage with a unified smart cities infrastructure.

So, what does stage two smart cities thinking require us to do and what might it look like Stage two smart cities thinking is about framing value and more specifically values. Surfacing conflicting values and adjudicating which ones are being served or not served as part of the everyday business of the cities. Today, suffering from information overload, legacy technology, and structures.Cities can’t comprehensively frame value tradeoffs. At a high level the values aspect of stage two smart cities thinking can easily be appreciated. The bigger challenge is the nexus to the more micro movements and organizational behaviors.

 The rapid ascent of consumer technology has led to an era of dynamic emotion and instant gratification 

What might this aspect of stage two smart cities thinking look like in practice? What does it look like to begin the shift to stage two smart cities thinking? It requires a renewed emphasis on logic and reason. Coupled with a continuous effort to remove cognitive biases and logical fallacy. Behavioral changes and norms that emphasize logic and eliminate cognitive bias don’t require smart cities technology. In fact, I think it is wise to begin stage two of smart cities thinking absent from technology. The rapid ascent of consumer technology has led to an era of dynamic emotion and instant gratification. This kind of relationship with technology can push smart citiesefforts further from logic, reason, values and can even reinforce biases. I recommend applying logic models to every aspect of a city’s operations.

In practice this means capturing and truthing the inputs, activities, and outputs. The sum of the outputs provides the outcomes. This process itself develops a new standard that respects the relationship of the big picture down to the objective material reality at the microlevel. This work may seem more like an over-the-top philosophical practice in contrast to allure of shiny technologies. However, it as an essential organizational shift necessary to tether smart cities intelligence to values and what is logistically practical.

To conclude I’ll leave you with two questions to consider to help curate an intersection between smart cities and our values. With the purpose of elevating smart cities from a concept to a foundational piece of local governance and civic infrastructure.

1. Are we applying enough logic to standardize, create and replicate smart cities across jurisdictions?

2. What are the values that should be tethered to smart cities and how do we adjudicate conflicting values?

These questions harken to the foundational elements of civics and governance. Time spent pondering these questions brings smart cities closer to a new intersection of civic infrastructure and our values.

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