A Smarter Way to Make Smart Cities

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Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact on cities as expensive, big business projects for only a fraction of the price.

Songdo, South Korea has been billed as the world’s first “smart city.” (Image: Gale International)

This is a guest post by Isabel Munson.

Today, when we hear the term “smart city”, massive interventions powered by some of the world’s largest companies come to mind. Take the $35 billion+ city of Songdo, South Korea, which was built from the ground-up with the help of Cisco. The planned city boasts 16 miles of bike paths, 40 percent of its area dedicated to outdoor spaces, and a designation as the biggest project outside the U.S. to be included in the LEED Neighborhood Development Pilot Plan (and first LEED Accredited district in South Korea). Most impressive of all is the city’s pneumatic waste disposal system, which funnels garbage from every kitchen in the city directly to a central waste processing center. Only seven employees handle waste for the whole city, and there are no garbage trucks or cans on the street.

But how can you make a smart city if you don’t have several billion dollars or the ability to build a development from the ground up? Aren’t expensive projects by big companies the only way to make your city smart? Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact with a fraction of the price. The creation of small smart cities companies may seem unrelated to any municipality’s actions, but cities can do a lot to encourage and empower these innovations.

For example, the mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston focuses on incorporating futuristic design and technology into the city’s development. Its willingness to invest resources and take chances on new technology has helped small companies succeed while ensuring that Boston remains innovative. I work for one of those small companies, Soofa, a MIT Media Lab spinoff founded in 2014. With the support of New Urban Mechanics, Soofa was able to pilot 10 pieces of smart urban furniture — solar-powered charging benches — just a few months after creating the first prototype.

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)
Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

The feedback gained from this pilot phase allowed Soofa to make major bench improvements and complete their first production run this spring, with benches being installed in eight U.S. states and three countries.

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)
The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

Across the river, Cambridge was also willing to take a risk on a new startup by being an early adopter of Soofa Benches and a R&D partner. The Soofa Bench features a sensor brain that detects the environment around it — from noise and nitrogen levels to humidity and temperature. Cambridge realized that this wealth of data gained from urban environments can be harnessed for more effective city planning, evaluating the efficacy of various programs and developments, and most importantly, helping citizens enjoy their urban spaces! As such, Cambridge was willing to be Soofa’s R&D partner as they develop the most comprehensive sensor brain and data platform possible. This R&D project was recently the feature of a Governing Magazine article which discusses in greater detail Soofa’s data collection capabilities.

So, why are small interventions better? When entrepreneurs envision ways to improve the city, they dream big, but are constrained by cost and practicality. The resulting products have big potential with a much smaller price tag. Installing a bench is much easier than retrofitting aged infrastructure with sensors, and more cost effective. A solar-powered bench can seem like an unnecessary expenditure, especially to smaller cities, but this investment enables cities to be more efficient and enjoyable in the future.

Creating a space where local entrepreneurs can have their city-improving ideas heard and potentially supported by city governments is critical to the creation of smart cities. Even if no investments are made, gaining the input of stakeholders from professors to designers and engineers is invaluable to future city planning. Chicago’s Array of Things project is another great example of a city using their valuable local academic and technological resources to create a low-cost, high-impact smart cities intervention.

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)
A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)
Edward Krafcik, Director of Partnerships and Business Development at Soofa, participates in the Innovation Central expo pavilion at NLC's 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville. (photo: Paul Konz)
Edward Krafcik, Director of Partnerships and Business Development at Soofa. Soofa was recently invited to participate in the Innovation Central expo pavilion at NLC’s 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville. (photo: Paul Konz)

Chicago still took input from smart-cities giants like Cisco, but made a conscious choice to loop in local talent for the research and design behind the project. Though here we encourage cities to support small companies creating smart cities interventions, we must give big companies credit where credit is due. Without their push to encourage smart cities projects, smaller companies would never be able to sell their products or get funding — because no one would know what a smart city is! The research, awareness and funding from major companies in the smart cities space has been invaluable. That said, any city can be cost-effectively made into a smart city through small interventions powered by small businesses.

So, how do you future-proof your city? Prioritize the creation of civic innovation offices similar to New Urban Mechanics to support local talent and small businesses. Small, agile interventions end up having a big impact.

About the Author: Isabel Munson is the Data Strategy Lead at Soofa, an Internet-of-Things company dedicated to creating social, sustainable and smart cities. Her other musings on smart cities, #Soofatalk, may be found at www.soofa.co or @mysoofa.