Technology Advances a Smart City

Cisco, Qualcomm, Intel, SAP, and IBM have “Smart City” programs that promise to solve urban problems, involve citizens, conserve energy, and launch cities into a new “digital” future. Their marketing and technology expertise would have us believe that no city could run faster, better, and cheaper without more technology. Cisco has committed to create a wireless and IoT in downtown Kansas City. Google installed its first city wide fiber lines here in Kansas City. In mid-town Kansas City, Missouri, we have the fastest of all Starbucks’ internet access. Kansas City is home to Garmin and Sprint. Multiple fiber optic lines from MCI, ATT, and more brands are implanted in my neighborhood daily; the sidewalks are littered with dotted paint showing where they go from my corner to the world.

“From Boston to Beijing, municipalities and governments across the world are pledging billions to create “smart cities”—urban areas covered with Internet-connected devices that control citywide systems, such as transit, and collect data. Although the details can vary, the basic goal is to “create super-efficient infrastructure, aid urban planning, and improve the well-being of the populace.” Nesta’s — a non-profit in England and Wales — new 2015 report, “Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up” provides international examples of exciting digital innovation in urban technology. You would think that Kansas City, Missouri is one of them.

Kansas City’s vision, in the current Citywide Business Plan, is hopeful, enthusiastic, citizen-centric, and technology savvy: “The City of Kansas City, Missouri is America’s creative crossroads. We employ innovative strategies to effectively and efficiently provide customer focused public services, foster respect for all citizens, and develop sustainable healthy communities where all – from youth to seniors – prosper and are safe. We lead by envisioning and embracing new approaches; inspiring; collaborating; measuring progress; and celebrating success.”

Cisco, through its Smart+Connected Communities program, will create a “living lab” for entrepreneurial development, smart street lighting and video surveillance, digital interactive kiosks and mobile apps to boost citizens’ engagement…” Kansas City’s “Digital Roadmap” boldly states that that digital inclusion is an issue of social equity and maximizing access to technology is a moral imperative in an increasingly digital age….” This statement begins Kansas City’s new technology and citizen engagement plan to increase “social media engagement, implement new internal coordination measures, and continue to identify and create new and exciting ways to solicit community input.”

In contrast to this bright and shiny promise of technology transformation, Kansas City’s Citywide Business Plan 2015-2020 is a colorful presentation of hopes, aspirations, and goals across most traditional aspects of city government. In contrast, the top four priorities from the 2014 Citizen Survey results were to maintain streets and sidewalks, reduce crime and increase police visibility, improve public transportation, and enforce neighborhood property maintenance. According to the Kansas City Citywide Business Plan, 2015-2020, the top four priorities from the 2014 Citizen Survey results are: maintain streets and sidewalks, reduce crime and increase police. The document details city management goals and financial controls needed to meet them.

An even starker view comes from a 2014 management study of the Kansas City Planning and Development Department. The report reads like a city planning management document from the 1980s.The report bluntly states the opposite of the coming technological promise: “The current situation does not meet the City’s apparent strategic direction and desire for economic development, growth, and a well-planned City.” The study recommends rudimentary management changes and basic technology improvements. There is reference to problems of confusions of definitions and data. The thick emphasis on management is itself a technical approach. All this is necessary to better carry out the scope of functions of basic urban planning.

The mismatch between the hopes to implement a “digital roadmap” and bring city planning up to even minimum skill and customer service says more about the true ability of planning departments. Planning departments have to cope with their traditional duties of permitting, zoning, transportation, jobs, housing , infrastructure, utilities, open space, urban design etc. regardless of the ‘smart city” initiatives and the swag of new technologies. In fact, implementing any of the smart city goals requires the fundamental city planning tasks, authorities, and processes. There are no city cost-sharing agreements for IoT without the ability of the municipal government go get the funding through traditional measures.

The lesson to be learned is that the gap between traditional on-going city planning and ‘smart city’ planning will not be resolved by technology. Inequitable infrastructure improvements, substandard housing, unemployment, under-funded schools and abandoned school buildings, and even the distribution of grocery stores will not be addressed by Google. An innovative use of IoT would be to map the unavailability of IoT capability in the first place across the city. Kansas City, Kansas is a world apart where population growth and destination attractions blossom, but there is little public view into the joblessness, poverty, and inadequate services among many people in a neighborhood called “Argentina,” among others

The contradiction is that implementing technology innovation requires basic improvements to fundamental functions and personal information sharing. “Management” is itself a veiled attempt at a technological solution so long as a solution is a prescribed management method. Maybe reviewing the advantages and innovation available from so-called “soft” or “wet” or “slow” technology would be better than just hoping to cash in on “smart” technology.

Get Smart – From Wearable Technology to Talking

In 1965, Maxwell Smart used wearable information technology to share administrative information. Smart bumbled into action, while the anonymous woman, “Agent 99,” was the rational voice supporting him. Occasionally, he had to use his rotary telephone in his shoe only to confirm her advice from “Control”. The “shoe phone” became a pop culture symbol for things to come. The Smart Phone (maybe named after Maxwell Smart?) has now replaced the Shoe Phone. Then when talking to his supervisor a “cone of silence” was the secure communication space where tactics were discussed. The “cone of silence” was a transparent bubble where what was said could not be heard outside. This is an interesting metaphor for claims about transparency, when there is really secrecy instead.

Get smart means knowing your strengths, which may not come stamped by a post-graduate degree. I have been extremely lucky, because I am quick to synthesize ideas rather than follow procedures, especially procedural computer programming. I hate procedures, but in 1989 my girlfriend at the time taught me how critical administrative procedures are. She taught me why a “two-hole punch” with holes 2.25 inches from center to center in a cardboard file was necessary to organize hard copy (then when “soft copy” did not exist) grant applications. Punching holes in folders was the epitome of administrative manual labor to make this a uniform container for hundreds of documents. Today, there are still valuable non-technical skills needed. As always, proof reading, without software assistance, is a critical manual skill.

Get smart means “emotional intelligence.” This does not come only from reading the book by that name. It means knowing weakness in modulating your emotions. The “civility” discussions are related to that. Historically under Roman law, I was shocked that in displaying administrative discourse a man (then only specially selected men) could be ostracized, flogged, or executed for showing emotion, especially anger. There was no excuse accepted for demonstrative behavior. Those necessary qualities of behavior are still applicable, but without capital punishment. I would have been a goner long ago if it hadn’t been for the indulgence of supervisors. Other GovLoop discussions on conversations are good guides. However, there must be a place for emotion and intuition at work. For example, see here.

Get smart means knowing the interpersonal and political contexts of what is said or written. Reading between the lines is usually required. Plain writing does not necessarily clear that up. Long ago, in, “On Authority” Richard Sennett stated that writing in “active voice” (now perhaps a part of “plain writing”) rather than in anonymous passive voice would be a step forward in responsible communication. However, for example, in the sentence, “Today the House Committee on …..decided that ………legislation creates jobs” that active voice tells you nothing. Making mistakes and political decisions to handle linguistics mistakes are significant too. At HUD, I was very personally caught up in missing “,”, which I did not create, in a homeless program regulation. For want of a comma, many necessary shelter operating eligible funds were excluded. The missing comma kept me busy answering regulatory questions to the contrary. When I recommended a “technical correction” in the Federal Register be published to correct this at that time no one did anything about it. That was very stressful and disappointing for me, even though as a result it kept me in contract directly with homeless shelter providers.

Get smart means paying attention to co-workers, friends, family, spouse, or a partner. Nothing brings more stress to interpersonal relationships than carrying all the above home after work. Lingering stress makes for bad relationships. It is not easy, for men anyway, to focus on maintaining relationships when personal values and professionalism are at stake. Asking and answering the question “what do you do,” are not foundations for relationships. This GovLoop essay on conflict resolution has good advice important in professional and interpersonal contexts.

My point is only that being adept at some fundamental skills and attitudes is vital. They are not as fun as purely technical ones, however, they open more doors to doing technical stuff. After an eon I haven’t mastered any of these. Nevertheless, computer science and data science have caught up to me, i.e. recognition that their foundations are logic and linguistics, which establish coherent meanings of data. I am not a DBA or programmer because those are my weaknesses. I more or less know where a semi-colon goes in a sentence but not in script. I have decades of technical experience with GIS, SPSS, and SAS (a little with R), but don’t get Python or JavaScript. Natural language processing and Graph models play to my strengths.

Get smart means getting smart. Being aware of all this takes work. Being smart about the law, political motivations, and social context is part of our job. The old fashioned means of citizen engagement was and is talking to citizens and one another. There is no doubt that some of us are more comfortable and adept at that than others. Max stumbled when he talked, and got better advice from “Agent 99” than from any info coming in over his wearable device. Rather than being a last resort, talking should be first. I know I’d rather send email because I communicate better in writing, I think. Keep on talkin’.