What’s so Smart about Smart Cities?

“Smart Cities: Transforming Cities for a New Era” was the theme of the 10th Annual Sustainability Conference, hosted by the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Environmental and Water Resources Institute, Carnegie Mellon University’s Metro 21 Smart Cities Institute, and Sustainable Pittsburgh.

The day-long summit, which took place at the August Wilson Center in Downtown Pittsburgh, explored our unique, local approach to planning for our future as a smarter, more livable and connected city. Speakers highlighted a variety of topics but ultimately circled around a central question –  How do we leverage data and technology to improve quality of life for the people who live in our region?

Major themes discussed throughout the day included:

  • Transportation – How can we build complete, networked transit systems that include first and last mile solutions?
  • Energy – How can we manage resources by implementing efficiency technologies, alternatives, and behavior change to reduce emissions on a large scale?
  • Infrastructure – From wifi networks to utilities, how do we ensure the needs of residents are addressed in effective, reliable ways?
  • Land Use – How do we design and develop the built environment with a mix of residential, industrial, and public space that people actually like to use?
  • Climate Change – How do we address serious climate stressors like increased rainfall and stormwater management before they become potentially deadly shocks like flooding and landslides?
  • Workforce – How can we ensure we are adequately and equitably training workers for a future economy that includes automation and rising advanced industries?
  • Data, Surveillance and Privacy – How do we balance the inherent tension between data collection for the purposes of increased security and connectivity with our right to privacy?

Technology, no matter how advanced, must be used as a tool and instrument of building an equitable, high-functioning lived environment that responds to the needs of the population who call it home.

Throughout the day ran a central idea – that though technology is better than it’s ever been, and indeed is a growing staple of our regional economy, the future of Smart Cities cannot be about tech for tech’s sake. As seductive as the allure is of a completely integrated web of devices answering our every whim, the essential question planners must ask before anything else is “what kind of spaces do we want to live, work, and play in?” Once that vision is established, technologies and innovations can be sourced to enable that vision. Technology, no matter how advanced, must be used as a tool and instrument of building an equitable, high-functioning lived environment that responds to the needs of the population who call it home.

We must guarantee that our future Smart City development is incremental, deliberate, and, most of all, people-centric.

We are lucky to have bright thinkers in our region like those who spoke throughout the day to help ensure that Smart City technology integration is driven by the will and desire of people in our communities. We will certainly apply this critical thinking in our work in communities like Lewiston, Maine, where over the next nine months we will examine opportunities for enhancing and investing in new smart city assets – things like smart streetlights, traffic signals, parking kiosks, wifi-hotspots, Electric Vehicle (EV) charging stations, distributed energy generation units, shared multi-modal units (bike or scooter shares), and fiber assets – to increase public health, digital equity and public safety.

In short, “Smart Cities” has the potential to improve our lives by connecting, monitoring, and optimizing city services like transit, utilities, and public safety resources. However, in order to make sure that it actually achieves the impact we want, we must guarantee that our future Smart City development is incremental, deliberate, and, most of all, people-centric.