Smart cities push public engagement over public policy: IBM strategist

What can we as IT leaders learn from the “smart cities” movement – as civic governments transform themselves to meet the challenges faced in the new millennium?

A lot, apparently. Or so I found out when I spoke with Steve Adler, chief information strategist for IBM and advocate for smart cities in preparation for his keynote at the World Future Cities Summit to be held in Toronto on Oct. 14-15.   

From public policy to public engagement

According to Adler, cities are undergoing a fundamental shift in how they interact with their citizens. He attributes it to open data and the innovation that it has spawned – and which is spreading around the world.

“Cities used to be organized differently.  They were collections – of buildings, of geographic areas, of neighborhoods,” but also fundamentally “they were collections of problems.” Civic government was organized into silos that addressed these problems.  They did this by creating and administering policy. Policy was the way that they “acted upon” citizens.

According to Adler, there is a “new metaphor. Think about the city as a platform,” he said in our interview. “For those of us in IT, we could see it as an IT platform. There is a basic level of infrastructure that we use to communicate.” This new digital infrastructure is not a collection of buildings or

Steve Adler looks at the future of smart cities
Steve Adler, chief information strategist for IBM.

structures. It’s a collection of people who communicate and share ideas across the platform. Within this construct, “policy is a something that is done together with and not to the citizens.”

According to Adler this new model creates a city that is able to tap into its full resources and potential.

“New York has 8.4 million citizens and 300,000 work for the city government. There is no way those 300,000 people can understand the way that the city works in the way that the whole citizenry can. There is such a wealth of citizen expertise – lawyers, doctors, architects and on and on.” This new model allows the civic enterprise to be aware of and to tap into all this expertise.  “The smart city is self-aware,” says Adler.

The new civic government – more than a vision

Does this mean we have to have a radical change in the actual structures of civic government? Wouldn’t this be a real impediment to change? Adler doesn’t think so.  “We don’t need to break it (the current structure). We need to work together. Most cities have a mayor, a city council, civic staff, and departments. But they already interact and work together with a lot of civic groups. Today, those groups – us – spend a lot of time lobbying, but without participating.”  

Adler gives an example in San Francisco’s Market Street Protyping Festival  where the city took a new approach to a public arts installation. “It allowed citizens to actually change the art. In fact, the art was created in a way that allowed itself to be reconfigured. A classic civic approach to art would be to commission a museum, fill it full of art works that the city leaders deemed to be worth. The public remains spectators. But in this experiment, citizens can participate directly.”

A public art exhibit on Market Street in San Francisco invites hands-on engagement from the public. (Photo courtesy
A public art exhibit on Market Street in San Francisco invites hands-on engagement from the public. (Photo courtesy

According to Adler, the installation was so successful that the city is looking to spread it to a number of different areas. “Of course,” he says, “this is just art, but it’s a great example of a process where the citizens and not the city makes the decisions.”

When I noted that this was a great “vision” – Adler pushed back. “It’s not a vision,” he said. “This is something that must happen and is happening.”

According to Adler, there is “a recognition by civic governments that we are facing real challenges.  There are limits to growth.  We have massive debt in the western world.  We are facing a period of deleveraging – we have to pay off that debt. Add to that climate change and population growth and we can see that we need a whole new model for growth.”

Municipalities as a platform – open data is the key

To Adler that model starts with data – but  “not data that is hoarded, or protected by copyright or other barriers to use.  Data has no value based on scarcity,” he said.   “Data has value when it is utilized – used by people and shared with less and less latency.”

Adler gave another example of how this is working today.  He is an advisor to the U.S. Commerce department. They are working with the U.S. census data, to transform that data into useful information. The U.S. Census Bureau Builder is now publishing all the human, business and economic data from the census with a useful interface that allows even a small business to understand their market. Using this, even the smallest business can get valuable information on areas of the city where they are located or thinking of locating. “Who lives there? How much money do they spend? How many businesses like yours are already there?”  

“It’s not the most comprehensive data,” said Adler “but it’s a start.  The census data is a platform that others can add to. Cities could add employment data, permit data, skills data and any other data that they have. Individuals might add other types of data. Businesses can add data as well.”

The information capital

Again, to Adler, this is not just vision. London, England has already moved well down this path. It’s published something called “the information capital.” Adler noted that they “took 100 different analytical views of London and put them into maps. You can see different views based on marital status, age distribution; you can find where people are moving to in different stages of their lives. Every bus, train or subway – you can see where each of them is and where they going.”  

This data has changed the way businesses are operating. For example, using this information, car rental companies are moving their offices out of the city core and giving renters a train ticket to for example, the Oxford station on the edge of the metropolitan area, where you can rent and drive north.  The result is a faster trip for the customer – but there are also other advantages.  The car rental company gets to use less expensive real estate. The city and the citizens get less congestion and reduction in air pollution.

These successes are fueling this emerging understanding that “data is an enabler.  Not simply because we publish CSV files.” In fact, the next wave, according to Adler will see cities providing their data in a new way. He made it clear that this should not follow the current corporate model where data suppliers publish APIs.  “The CSV is a model of simplicity and elegance. We don’t need a controlled interface with publishers controlling what is published and their audience.”

Required – a new interface

The real challenge, according to Adler is not the data source – the CSV – but the skills needed to access and transform it. “Millennials have the skills sets necessary to take advantage of the data today.” The real challenge is how do you make the data available in a way that makes it accessible to those who don’t have the skills to access and transform it?

According to Adler, the solution lies in maps. “Maps are a wonderful way to access data. Almost everyone, even if they are illiterate or don’t read a language – almost everyone can read a map. In this model, Adler states, “We aren’t just consumers. We are publishers.  And that information can be linked between public and provide data. It doesn’t just sit on a newsfeed – it’s part of a map.”

He noted that we actually have this today on social networks. “I check Facebook regularly,” he says, “but then I go out and sometimes I take my camera and I become an information source.”

What IT leaders should learn from smart cities

Does this model have relevance to IT leaders?  According to Adler CIOs should be paying close attention.  

“Corporate executives have a lot to learn from cities. They should be thinking about their customers as co-creators. They should be thinking about how they engage.  They should be looking to how they can share information, build new types of trusted relationships – how they can be providing a platform for co-creation not just in the enterprise but with their end customers.”

As Adler points out, this is not a vision; it’s a practical necessity to meet the challenges of the future.  “Nations and states are doing this for more effectiveness.

And it’s a future of business as well – all of us are going there to a future where we can all be co-creators.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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