CSIS Panel Discusses Importance of Smart Cities and What is Holding Them Back

On June 1st, 2016, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a panel discussion regarding the role of Smart Cities in revolutionizing international development. While the term “Smart Cities” may carry different connotations, it is ultimately understood as the application of innovative technology into city functions, in order to improve city efficiency and livability. Even though many technological innovations have been placed in the hands of consumers over the years, there has been little effort to equip cities with similar groundbreaking technological innovations. 

A joint research effort by CSIS and the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s Research Institute (JICA-RI) studied the effects of different technological applications used to improve the livability of the bustling city, Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.  Despite the city’s relatively poor infrastructure, the aggressive efforts of city leaders led to many successful initiatives that improved the city conditions. Investments in technology such as Qlue, a mobile application that connects city dwellers with government, allowed citizens to communicate infrastructure problems quickly and directly to government officials.  Additionally, regulatory initiatives such as the Mass Rapid Transit Project, will use advanced modern rail technology to help reduce the traffic congestion plaguing the city. Applying new technology to wide-scale city functions has better equipped Jakarta to manage the growing challenges it faces as a rapidly growing city in a developing country.

Aside from discussing the study results, other experts, such as representatives from MIT, Uber, and Mitsui, were able to speak about their own experiences with Smart Cities.  Anthony Vanky, a researcher at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, presented the many ways in which new technologies can be applied to improve the functionality of not just cities in developing countries, but cities in America.  Vanky’s understanding of the term “Smart City” is perhaps the best way to understand why Smart Cities are so important. 

Instead of thinking of Smart Cities as “smart,” they should be thought of as “senseable.”  That is, sensors, software, telecommunications, collaborative databases, and other technological resources can be deployed throughout a city which can allow a city to sense problems and then solve them.  Sensors in sewage lines can monitor microscopic organisms to detect and prevent outbreaks of diseases.  Sensors at traffic intersections can record and analyze traffic congestion, which can allow city officials to change the timing and setup of traffic lights as needed.

Data sharing between city officials and private businesses, like taxi companies or ride-sharing companies, can provide the government with information critical to understanding how a city functions, thus equipping officials with the knowledge necessary to pass effective changes in infrastructure. Overall, technology can allow a city to receive feedback from its citizens, which can then be interpreted and used to improve the livability of a city.  In this way, a Smart City senses the problems and solves them.

While the benefits of integrating advanced technology into city functions may seem obvious, the lack of cooperation between the public sector and private industry has held back the ability for many cities to adopt groundbreaking technology.  It is imperative that both government and private businesses collaborate and cooperate, or else the technology cannot be applied.  Often times, new technology is put on hold because it does not fit into the outdated regulatory framework of many cities.  Likewise, many private companies are hesitant to even share data with the government.   The government has a history of mishandling sensitive data, and many companies are concerned about upholding the privacy of their customers.  Furthermore, many local governments have tight budgets and are unwilling to invest in expensive technology. 

Ultimately, technology is growing faster than the government can handle.  Politicians do not want to risk losing their jobs by stepping into the untested and unprecedented regulatory waters that have to be stepped in for Smart Cities to happen.  The public sector and the private sector must work together in order to provide citizens with the most efficient and comfortable city living environment possible.  Otherwise, cities will inherit the consequences of being outdated in a society of rapid innovation.