Alex Steffen writes in his new book, Carbon Zero, “How we build this coming wave of cities will largely decide not only the quality of life of the people living in them, but also the future of our planet.” This is true for both new and existing cities – if we figure how to make them smarter and more sustainable, we might still have a chance. But how do we do that, exactly?
The answer is probably as complex as the challenge, but the search for the right tools and ideas is already going on with dozens of companies that want to help cities address the issues associated with rapid urbanization. One company, SAP, develops solutions such as the Urban Matters program to help urban governments deliver better-run cities.
At the beginning of the month, SAP organized a panel to discuss what it means to be a “best run city.” Moderated by Sean O’Brien, Global VP, Urban Matters and Public Security at SAP, the panel included Bill Oates, CIO of City of Boston, Chris Moore, CIO of City of Edmonton (Canada), Theresa Pardo, Director of the Center for Technology in Government (CTG), and Bruce Katz, VP and Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
Not surprisingly, the panel focused on data and how cities can use it to improve governance and engagement with citizens. Would improved governance and engagement would necessarily translate into improved sustainability? The answer seems to be “yes.” As Bill Oates explained at the beginning of the panel, the successful cities of the future will be about engagement and empowerment, not necessarily efficiency.
This was a key concept throughout the panel – learning to effectively use data and engage with citizens also helps cities develop the capabilities that will enable them to better run themselves from environmental sustainability perspectives, including energy and environmental resource management.
Boston is one example of a city on its way to being smarter. It uses SAP Urban Matters and publishes performance results as a tool for both city officials and citizens to know what city agencies are doing, how well they are doing it, and where they can improve. Sharing the data, Dante Ricci of SAP told me later, helps the city engage its citizens and become more responsive and accountable.
On the day of the panel, SAP announced that the City of Boston had launched a performance management scoreboard for its Boston About Results (BAR) e-government initiative, designed to “to ensure that the people of Boston receive the best possible city services in all areas.” If you go to the scoreboard, you see that most of the issues covered there are municipal issues like schools, public works, and treasury collecting. Some issues are a bit more related to sustainability, like transportation or parks, but in all, there’s not much focus on issues that are directly related to sustainability, like energy, water, emissions, public transportation, or biking.
Nevertheless, the system can provide more than just data on how many parking tickets the city of Boston hands out monthly, or how many potholes it fills. SAP’s Ricci explains that city governments can use such platforms to enhance engagement with citizens on sustainability issues. For example, the city can give citizens direct visibility into how their tax dollars are being invested for sustainability, enable citizens to report issues using mobile devices, or open data for citizen developers to build valuable capabilities for everyone to use.
Chris Moore of Edmonton, which runs a similar scoreboard, also emphasized the importance of engagement with citizens. These platforms, he explained, provide education, create awareness and eventually get people into the conversation. The question, again, is to what extent and how quickly this conversation will be around sustainability. If you look for examples on Edmonton’s scoreboard, you see that right now it shows data mostly about issues like street sweeping and filling potholes. Yet, on the menu, you can see that “the way we green” will be added to the scoreboard, so hopefully it will have reports on sustainability-related data in the near future.
Cities like Boston and Edmonton are examples of what Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution described as the new kind of cities that stand up and become the vanguard of innovative polices. These are cities that are not only looking inward but also outward, looking how to engage globally or become globally fluent, as he called it. Chris Moore mentioned that the City of Edmonton plans to sell its waste management expertise to other cities around the world, starting in China.
Eventually, as Theresa Pardo of CTG summarized it, we need to look at the value of openness as an opportunity for cities. The only question I have left, after the panel, is not if cities will take advantage of it, because obviously smart cities will and the rest will follow, but how quickly it will move to become sustainability oriented. After all, as Steffen and others warn us, we don’t have much time to act and if cities won’t move quickly in this direction they will have much more on their plate than potholes to fill or trees to maintain.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.