How Technology is Opening Doors of Innovation in Cities

December 5, 2012

By Julia Pulidindi

The demographics of cities are changing in ways that require faster information and quicker solutions to problems.  A younger, more mobile constituency base has a very different level of expectation from governments than previous generations.  Luckily, cities are in a position to address these needs through both low- and hi-tech solutions.  From simple upgrades to websites, to adoption of social media tools and slightly more involved processes that put vital information at a resident’s fingertips, technology solutions are the way forward to meeting constituent needs while improving government performance.

Since information is now available in ways unlike before, it can be difficult to determine what can be done with that information and  how to use it successfully.  One solution is for cities to make their information publicly available and let the market make the most effective uses of it. 

Governments are not in the market of providing technology solutions, but they do have the data (i.e. information on transit schedules or health code information for restaurants) that can back up useful applications of it.  Making this information accessible to the public in informative ways can be a game changer for how people view and interact with their local governments. 

Rather than being an image of bureaucracy, city governments are now a source of information by simply making their data available in an useable way through online resources or alternatively letting private industry and developers take advantage of it through the development of mobile applications. 

However, there are some downsides; once cities make the information available, they essentially give up control of how it is being used. Fortunately, in most situations studied so far, the application of this data is generally good.  In Philadelphia, for example, the transit authority actually advertises apps that have been developed outside government that provide information on their services.

Technology merges two worlds: Government, made up of information from various departments, and citizens, the users of that information.  Boston is one success story of integrating citizens into a process which effectively uses city information by engaging residents as problem solvers, inventors and community advocates. 

“We find that engaged residents are interested in being part of the chain of value of information.” says Nigel Jacob, Co-Chair, Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston. Mobile technologies are a way to engage people and are becoming an increasingly efficient medium for it.  Boston's  app “Street Bump” requires only minimum user engagement. The app uses the phone’s technology to send data in road conditions back to a central server while citizens are driving.

Technology in cities span both the front end through services that interface with residents or users of the system and also in back end operations through ways that these improve services and meet overall environmental goals for a city.

Santa Monica, CA has developed a citywide vision that integrates land use and mobility to encourage walking, transit use and biking as a way to reduce greenhouse gases.  The use of technology is a huge component in helping encourage the use of these alternative modes and enhance their usability. The city's transit management system will allow for signal priority for buses, real-time travel information sent straight to mobile devices and a farebox system at bus stops supporting multiple pass types and payment options including cash, credit and even smart phones.  Santa Monica is also using an “Advanced Traffic Management System” (ATMS) to help the overall traffic flow and reduce congestion by upgrading traffic signals, traffic signal controllers, traffic signal cameras, and wireless devices. Additional system upgrades are being undertaken for pedestrian and bicycle facilities. 

Technology solutions are also being used in the realm of public utility services, through both basic and advanced efforts in Tallahassee, FL.  Their Neighborhood REACH program serves 2,259 homes in underserved neighborhoods by auditing homes and then providing a variety of basic energy efficiency measures including weather-stripping, caulking, HVAC air filters and showerheads.  Not only do citizens learn about ways to save on energy costs, they "love you for it,” says Mayor John Marks, underlying the importance of residents seeing local governments as a resource for them and a true advocate of citizen needs.

Tallahassee also features the first electric, water and natural gas Smart Grid in the country that offers customers more choice, flexibility and control in managing their energy usage.  These interactive tools enable customers to adjust settings remotely via the web for their thermostats, and home energy monitors help customers track and manage their energy usage with real-time data.  The tools not only assist with overall household savings, but also meet environmental goals of reducing energy consumption. 

While not all of the solutions mentioned may be fiscally feasible for cities, the important aspect to note is what technology options are available.  Now, it is difficult for a city to look at the services provided and the ways they engage with their residents without technology being used in some way to improve it. 

Sophistication of the technology can still vary, but it is important for cities to understand that this is the way forward and, if used correctly, can have a lasting impact on their economic, environmental and social development.  “This isn’t a passing fancy, this is here to stay,” Carl Nylan, State and Local Government Manager of Esri said.