Experts Push Bottom-Up Approach to ‘Smart City’ Development

Thinking Cities
By Thinking Cities August 15, 2016 20:42

Experts Push Bottom-Up Approach to ‘Smart City’ Development

As cities take on bigger roles in the global economy, the push to develop data-integrated “smart cities” capable of fostering widespread innovation is gaining more momentum. And some experts studying how to best achieve that integration have a simple message for state and federal governments: Get out of the way.

“There’s an understanding that if we are charging cities with being our leaders of innovation — both local governments themselves, as well as cities as sort of test grounds of innovation — then we need to empower cities to do that,” said Christy McFarland, research director at the National League of Cities, during a panel discussion at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Monday. “And there are many constraints, particularly on local governments, to have them facilitate additional innovation in the economy.”

McFarland’s push for greater local autonomy was a frequent theme among the panelists, which included representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Dell Inc. and the World Bank. Despite the panel’s Washington setting, federal and state government programs were spurned in favor of city government initiatives designed to connect people and innovators to a growing volume of data and ideas emerging directly from local communities.

Michael Hendrix, senior director for emerging issues and research at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, stressed the importance of local governments as economic laboratories. He pointed to specific policies cities could implement allowing drone testing, which is currently subject to Federal Aviation Administration restriction, as well as local rules designed to promote innovative ride-sharing methods.

“There’s an opportunity to to demonstrate to the rest of the country how you manage technology well — not only for the city, but for every citizen,” Hendrix said.

The analysts highlighted the development of partnerships between a city’s government and its tech startup community as a key indicator of urban digital development. McFarland pointed to cities like San Francisco, which recruited a startup to develop ways to make its international airport more navigable for passengers, as a model for the kind of interconnectedness public and private entities require to share data and achieve greater digital integration.

Those public-private relationships have been key to finding the most innovative, data-driven cities, Hendrix said. He highlighted U.S. Chamber of Commerce research showing how a robust flow of social capital between local officials and tech leaders can lead to surprising results — including Boston beating out San Francisco as the friendliest region for digital advancement and opportunity.

“You can have all the capital and talent and research capacity in the world and yet still not generate sustained innovation and start-up activity — or at least, not as much as you otherwise could,” Hendrix said, emphasizing the growth of dense social networks between local governments as tech entrepreneurs as the ultimate driver of “smart city” development.

Thinking Cities
By Thinking Cities August 15, 2016 20:42