People: The Smartest Piece of a ‘Smart City’

Jack Cassidy and Ben Brown, NCLM Communications

Jim Alberque’s recipe for an efficient, forward-thinking town has three ingredients, and they’re all people. Talented people, service-oriented people, curious people.

It’s a somewhat surprising list considering Alberque’s role as the Emerging Technology Director for the City of Raleigh, where the emphasis is on finding and leveraging new tools, not personnel. The embrace of both technology and humanity seem at odds. But in defining the term the way he does, Alberque ties those assets together and reframes the futuristic Smart City idea into something far more inclusive.

“While I personally have a passion for technology and leveraging technology to solve problems, I consider that there are nontechnological solutions that are innovative in nature, that can help solve problems,” said Alberque. “I try to take technology out of it. When I think of a Smart City, I think of a willingness to try new things to solve existing problems.”

This updated definition is a welcome change. Under the widely accepted terms, the Smart City idea trends more towards a theoretical exercise, only useful in practice if you could start a city from scratch with an unlimited pot of money. Like smart phones, smart TVs, and smart cars before it, this smart product would see cities built almost solely of new technologies.

The U.S. Department of Transportation promoted that idea in 2015 when it launched the “Smart City Challenge,” which asked midsized cities to “use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.” And it is perhaps most played up through Alphabet (owner of Google) and their Toronto-based subsidiary Sidewalk Labs—a utopian project that, in its own words, “aims to combine forward-thinking urban design and cutting-edge technology to radically improve urban life.” The visuals conjure not an improved city, but a new one altogether.

Alberque, by evoking the humanity behind the undertaking, re-opens the possibilities and re-elevates the issues that the movement was meant to address. Namely, that these ideas— whether they be a new technology or more primitive solution—are designed to serve, not usurp, the people of the community, and there’s a great deal of potential we’re letting atrophy by not embracing that ethos.

“We’re not driving technology for technology’s sake,” said Alberque. “We’re trying to understand challenges that departments and citizens are facing, and marry them with existing technologies that can solve those problems or gain insights into the challenges.”

In the Town of Cary, a similar roadmap is laid out as it pertains to smart solutions: Evaluate the status quo, set a target for improvement, and then creatively figure out the route there.

“Take technology out of it,” said Terry Yates, Smart Cities Chief Innovator for the Town of Cary, told NCLM’s Ben Brown on episode 38 of the League’s podcast, Municipal Equation. “(We) identify the problem, then identify the outcome we would like to see.”

Cary put the principle into practice by transforming their town hall campus into a makeshift small city, complete with facilities, utilities, parking, and other municipal essentials. It was a civic test kitchen. Here, technologies were implemented and then studied. Companies flocked to Cary’s simulated city, installed their equipment, and proved its usefulness in addressing problems the town had identified.

The arrangement benefited every party involved. For Cary, the town was able to avoid the risk of potentially implementing a costly, ineffective technology, and was able to do so affordably, as they were using property that they already owned. Additionally, the area of implementation itself was small, making the testing process relatively straightforward. And for the vendors, the value associated with the opportunity to showcase their products outweighed the costs it took to stage the tests. Shortly after its introduction, the mock city had received more than $100,000 in donated services, equipment, and licenses.

The typical Smart City approach would point to the technologies that emerged from the model city as the “smart” outcome. The updated concept, though, would point to the model city itself—an economical achievement of creative problem solving. At the Smart Cities Connect Conference in 2017, where Cary’s innovative model city was featured, Austin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler made this point clear. “At its very core, a smart city is a city that has been able to look inside and identify what its challenges are — what its people and residents need to have the quality of life they want to have — and to craft unique solutions that enable the city and the community to deal with those challenges,” Adler said in his opening remarks. “That truly is what a smart city is.”

To both Alberque and Yates, the top-down approach, where solutions need to be implemented on a citywide scale, start with people and their ideas. The platforms they conceive, whether that’s a model city or a new way of looking at data, are the heartbeat of the cause. Upon implementation, however, the impact reverses direction and transforms into a bottom-up process, which now analyzes the proposed solution in terms of its on-the-ground, human impact.

It’s a question of equitability. Who will this affect, and how will this affect them? The answers to those questions can only come from the community itself, and should come from a place of informed understanding, which requires transparency on the part of the town. As Alberque puts it, evaluating community impact is not an elective, altruistic exercise. It’s central to the social structure of the municipality itself. In other words, it’s the entire point.

“We are constantly rechecking our narrative to make sure that we are not only doing a good job of the actions, but also doing a good job of sharing that and engage with other groups,” Alberque said.

It’s on this point that small cities have a smart city advantage. Social ties are strong in smaller municipalities, and democratic feedback, whether that be through community meetings or voting, will be heard.

The challenges then reside in the numbers—the amount of money available and the amount of staff capacity in town hall—and budgets are tight. Thus, progress will be made in the currency of creative ideas, both large and small. Cary, though not a small town, developed its test city using a space it already had. Similarly, Raleigh puts as much emphasis on its owned assets as it does any outside solution.

And on the small scale, the creative answers need not be grand.

Alberque is reminded of a story he heard from an assistant city manager of a small town in North Carolina. The story is about this particular town’s public works employees, who, while working on leaf collection, faced a persistent problem with pests. It affected both the citizens and the worker’s ability to perform their roles.

So, they came up with a solution. They attached a sprayer to the leaf collection apparatus.

In this case, the technology was simply a roll of duct tape.

“It eradicated the problem,” Alberque said. “That is a group of people who saw a challenge and were willing to try something new, when they didn’t have a lot of resources to bring to bear or a lot of time to have big strategy meetings.

“That has stuck with me.”