Jay Zaveri of Social Capital characterizes cities as a human experiment successful enough to harness the lion’s share of global economic output. But just as they represent human ingenuity in its greatest form, cities also reflect a darker side of human nature littered with poverty, pollution and poor social planning. How to move forward? Social Capital is drawing on the “legacy knowledge” of expert urban planners and designers to build consensus from geospatial data, scenario modeling and analytical intelligence, a medley of new tech Zaveri calls “the ground truth.”
Many renderings of new urban development projects include a plaza or similar open space, sitting somewhere in front or between the proposed new buildings. Glitzy visualizations paint pictures of future plazas teeming with life. People are lounging, meeting each other and actively engaging in public life.
But wander off to anywhere in Helsinki (or any Finnish city, really) and you will find dead plazas galore. Most of today’s plazas were planned before digital tools came into play and made adding people easy, but the story has been the same for a long time: once materialized, our plazas typically end up being devoid of the public life they’re envisioned to support.
Supporting public life is a topic we must discuss. The public and policy atmosphere is shifting towards a future of living in denser and more urban neighborhoods. This makes having high-quality public realms a top priority for livability. Thinking about why we have so many dead plazas also helps to advance the broader discussion for smarter urban planning.
Just being in an urban environment, scientists have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.
One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil.
This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities. For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of inhabiting wide-open spaces, we’re crowded into concrete jungles, surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent years, it’s become clear that such unnatural surroundings have important implications for our mental and physical health, and can powerfully alter how we think.
The number of fed, state and local civilian employees eligible for retirement has risen sharply. Meanwhile, new talent isn’t flocking to fill open government positions.
Massachusetts Comptroller Tom Shack suggests technology as a solution. “No one is going to hire their way out of the Silver Tsunami. We’re going to have to tech our way out of it.” Shack launched CTHRU, a cloud-based, open records platform that eliminates hundreds if not thousands of hours of work by his staff to access and share data. Rather than keep the state’s financial information locked in PDFs, individual computers, or in the customized, cumbersome, legacy finance systems, CTHRU shows payroll, budget, and spending data to anyone on a mobile device.
Shack understands the urgency of unearthing as much data as possible before employees with valuable institutional knowledge of programs retire from state service. Governments produce vast amounts of data. Of all the ways technology can reduce staff workloads, making data standardized and accessible in the cloud is one of the most impactful. Unlocking “tribal knowledge” trapped in employees’ minds and their computers opens up nearly endless avenues for process improvement.
With automated data flows, agencies can give the new workforce the empowerment of analyzing and learning from the data, not just the job of collecting and storing it.
Quayside, as the project is known, will be laden with sensors and cameras tracking everyone who lives, works or merely passes through the area. In what Sidewalk Labs calls a marriage of technology and urbanism, the resulting mass of data will be used to further shape and refine the new city.
But extending the surveillance powers of one of the world’s largest tech companies from the virtual world to the real one raises privacy concerns for many residents. Others caution that, when it comes to cities, data-driven decision making can be misguided and undemocratic.
To manage our cities, we need a work culture that encourages mobility, balances profits with purpose, and values autonomy. Cities need a workforce that can meet challenges where they are. My latest for HuffPost looks at how a distributed workforce can provide the fuel urban initiatives need to take off running.
The reason the Civic Analytics Network is successful is the incredible support system they have in place. When the group published An Open Letter to the Open Data Community, I saw a group that shared many of the same thoughts as I do. What resonated was that the group was able to develop some consensus about where “open data portals” should be headed, share that out into the community; and that the private sector responded. We need this same support system too.
While industrialization has prompted unprecedented economic growth and allowed for the rise of a new middle class in China, urbanization has also left some 9 million children in the countryside alone as their parents work in cities far from home.
Down from the Mountains chronicles the lives of three children who when not in school live often unattended on a farm in Liangshan. With their parents working in the distant city of Huizhou, only their grandmother, who lives a 40-minute walk away, is able to supervise them. Director Max Duncan brings us into the lives of this fractured family as Jiajia, the mother, considers a permanent return home.
City leaders have developed a greater focus on sustainability and integrating technology and data into their operations, a shift that’s reflected in a number of smart city-focused conferences aimed at expanding the industry. Partnerships aren’t only forming between public and private entities; municipalities increasingly are partnering with each other to take on big projects.
Across the nation, communities are building smarter energy infrastructure that leverages the power of data to solve problems. These projects will spur economic development, improve sustainability, enhance public safety and drive efficiencies — ultimately creating a better quality of life for citizens. For more of these projects to become reality, key stakeholders in the community, private industry and government must understand how best to work together.