Much of what I have written about for Propmodo has been focused on smart buildings, and the business of developing and running them. This article, covering the panel on smart cities for our event during New York Real Estate Tech Week, is a little broader in scope. We try to explore the larger context of how the changes in the property industry are affecting our everyday lives (and visa versa) so decided to invite a group of smart city experts from various backgrounds to have a conversation about what it takes to make a smart city and what it even means for a city to be smart.
Moderated by Matt Abeles, Co-founder of BuiltWorlds, the panel surveyed a group of industry leaders on the future of the city. Participating in the panel were Patrice Derrington, Holliday Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Real Estate Development Program at Columbia University, AJ Colletti, Principal at The Digit Group, Aaron Renn, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and Sander Dolder, Vice President for the New York City Development Corporation.
First, the group set out to define what the definition of a smart city is and, possibly more importantly what it should be.
“…Smart cities to me are sort of the digitalization of infrastructure…you’re looking at technologies that, from hardware to software to just business models in general, that help create a more efficient city,” Sander said.
A smart city, in Sander’s view, would include a range of specific innovations across areas such as waste management, energy efficiency, or transportation solutions that together serve to democratize the city itself by increasing overall transparency.
“[The goal of smart cities is] to help cities understand their citizens more effectively,” Sander added, pointing to cities in countries such as Estonia that have such easy access to city data that individual citizens can see their impacts, and how they are impacted, by the people around them.
Other panelists offered takes on the smart city with a slightly different emphasis.
“…I think one of the important denominators for a smart city…is quality of life. The whole idea of having better infrastructure and better participation, I think the ultimate goal there is to create a better quality of life for everyone,” AJ said.
This fundamental goal of smart cities, improving quality of life, is undoubtedly omnipresent across the entire scope of the built environment. This universal goal of the smart city hints at just how widespread these connected, data-driven metropolises will become.
“I would just say, smart cities like a lot of things, like “green industry,” is just one of these terms that I think is going to go away ultimately, because everything is going to become smart and technology-enabled, just like everything in the future is going to be green at some point. There’s not going to be green industry, it’s just going to be industry, it’ll all be green,” Aaron said.
This sense of certainty seemed to be part and parcel with the discussion of smart cities. The transformation of modern, “dumb” cities seemed to be an inevitability for the panelists – a matter of how and when rather than if. However, a common thread through the discussion was a lack of standardization from one future smart city to the next. The mechanisms by which these cities will emerge, and their specific impacts on a case-by-case basis, are highly diverse.
“There have been a lot of cities holding themselves up to be examples of smart cities, and they’ve all emerged in very different ways. There doesn’t seem to be a formula. You’ve got everything from Sidewalks Labs going up to Toronto, working with them, that was a direct approach. You have other cities in California you’ll find working from grassroots levels up, starting with environmental systems,” Patrice said.
One likely avenue by which smart cities might take off is the public sector. Private companies run the gamut from fine-tuned behemoths like Google and Facebook to nimble startups able to deftly identify and solve specific urban challenges.
“In the United States, smart cities are not going to be a result of all this institutional collaboration. They’re going to be a result of marketplace innovations. The biggest smart city initiatives are Airbnb and Uber, and these are things that came in from the private sector and just disrupted the traditional political process,” Aaron said.
Navigating the political process to allow smart cities breathing room was a particular focus for the panelists, whose varying backgrounds gave them different experiences working with public actors.
“The idea [of the government role] is to drive the growth of new industries, and so with smart cities in particular, for us, our role is to stimulate the growth of a sector…to really enable these companies to be able to have a platform so they can succeed in New York,” Sander said.
Fulfilling this role as a facilitator of private sector growth operates through a variety of mechanisms with Sander’s team in New York City, from helping startups secure office space to acting as a translator or mediator between different organizations.
Others in the panel concurred. Patrice explained that another major role for government is to establish political support for smart city goals.
“Some of this, by the way, is not just political, it’s also legislative. For example we were excited to build a metro in Doha [Qatar], and one of the issues that came up was who owns the land under everyone’s home? No one had ever asked the question before, so it wasn’t a matter of political will as much as it was a legislative matter to create laws that would support some of the technologies and infrastructure we’re introducing.
Despite this consensus as to the government role in smart city development, different regions have different strategies as to the level of governance responsible. China, Patrice mentioned, considers it a federal responsibility. Things are different in the United States.
“…The truth is it’s really not the federal role in most cases to go and try to regulate Uber or something like that,” Aaron said. He added, however, that the Trump administration is investigating federal options to penalize cities like New York and San Francisco for blocking housing development.
Based on the discussion, it seems that high-tech hubs share certain commonalities, particularly in terms of goals and mechanisms, but the details of their births and development are as varied as the cities and citizens themselves. No matter what the backdrop is for technology investments to make for better built environments, all parties involved including governments, real estate owners, the financial service industry and areas residents all have to do their part to fulfill the dream of having a truly smart city.