How do you explain the “smart cities” idea? How do you do it on a first date, as I had to do not long ago?
She asked, “So, what do you write about?” That I wrote about “smart cities” was already on the record. First, you sip your beer. Then you set out to jump over the gimmicky “smart” and into the noble “cities.”
I say “smart cities” because it’s widely recognized. But like many of us, I have to hold my nose when I say it. “Smart” sounds like another cheap dream, another little experiment by people eager to flaunt their tech while they conceal its frailties and hide your personal data’s murky destination.
Yet it’s the most recognizable term for a perfectly valid intent — to use up to date technology on behalf of city efficiency and livability. The idea is really no more revolutionary than the telephone was 100 years ago, or the telegraph before it.
One big difference now is public skepticism. A healthy portion of the population, especially urban elites, understands “smart” for what it is — and so distrusts the “smart cities” idea.
Never mind that real benefits can come to cities, regions, and states with their use of the internet of things, edge computing, and artificial intelligence.
Sipping beer with me was a critical-care nurse. She works every day in a “smart” environment. Metrics come in swarms of beeps, blinking lights, and alarms set off by sensors. It all relates directly to well-being.
Still, she asked, “So, what do people get out of it?”
She knows data, but she also has first hand experience every few minutes with large systems. The hospital’s medical-records system is notoriously difficult to use, and a consultant with first hand experience says this is commonplace among hospital systems. Though nurses entered the profession to care for sick people, these systems impose a new burden. It’s continual glitches and unforgivably slow processing invites dirty data. Let’s see, thinks the nurse, do I wait here at this monitor, or do I run to see what’s up with that patient?
Do the same vendors who make these miserable hospital systems also make municipal systems? What do those vendors really know about “smart”?
She looked at me, sipped her beer again, and asked, “So, how does it all come together?”
This finally gets into what makes the vision fascinating of connected-cities, sustainable cities, civic tech, or whatever it is. This is glittering technology versus brute public skepticism. In places like the San Francisco Bay Area and other areas teeming with ambient technical knowledge that rivals any technology vendor’s, there’s also the public’s expertise.
It’s best to come clean from the start. “Smart” is not smart at all. Just sell each installation one at a time with no gimmicks and no grand scheme. Just take it slow.