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Long-term smart city success is more likely when leaders take the time to establish data and tech governance frameworks with community input, one expert says.
Slow and steady may be the key to smart city success.
Cities often feel pressured to be early adopters of technologies, which could lead to innovation initiatives falling flat, said Madelyn Sanfilippo, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Information Sciences.
“There are significant competitive advantages and financial incentives to be those early adopters in ways that don’t necessarily prioritize community buy-in or actual problem solving,” Sanfilippo said. For instance, companies may offer tech and data services at reduced costs for state and local partners who are willing to be test sites.
But the juice may not always be worth the squeeze. In an Internet Policy Review paper assessing smart intersection implementation, Sanfilippo highlights the pitfalls leaders may fall into when they implement smart city innovations without proper planning and community buy-in. The March paper evaluated the smart city implementation and resulting community feedback in four college towns: Princeton, New Jersey; College Station, Texas; College Park, Maryland and Madison, Wisconsin.
When cities take the time to develop a governance framework for their smart city solutions and build community trust, then current projects are more likely to run smoothly, and future projects have a backbone to build upon, Sanfilippo said.
For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison spent more than a decade planning and institutionalizing the idea of using smart intersections for traffic control through surveys, town hall meetings and referendums.
“In pairing the pedestrian-focused solutions with efforts to reroute vehicular traffic during student passing periods between classes, this human-centered smart city project, including both the smart tech and governance mechanism, achieved various community goals, including safety, reduced driver anxiety and accessibility, among others,” the paper stated.
When a community is onboard with smart city tech at the start, less time is needed to redesign or redevelop projects after the fact. Plus, community feedback can be a cost saver, Sanfilippo said. For example, cities may think they need to install expensive street lights all over the community, but a conversation with residents may reveal they prefer new lights only in commercial districts.
Smart city adopters must also ensure “people’s perceptions of what’s happening align with what’s actually happening,” she said. That means only adopting tech or gathering data that fits a community’s specific needs and agrees with local values.
In Princeton, New Jersey, for example, Princeton University in 2019 installed cameras at intersections where accidents frequently occurred. The community was under the impression that the data’s purpose was solely to monitor traffic flow and ultimately mitigate collisions, according to the paper. However, data was also shared with local law enforcement that issued automatic tickets when the cameras detected vehicles going over the speed limit.
The university received considerable pushback from residents because “automated ticketing diverged from what the community anticipated and ultimately was deemed unacceptable,” the paper stated. As a result, the university scaled back the ticketing system, and “the community and campus jointly declared success, with a reduction in accidents and clearer parameters for data collection and use governance.”
“It’s really necessary to choose the right solution to the actual problem you’re facing and to make sure that governance reflects appropriate handling of any data being collected,” Sanfilippo said. That means, for instance, using data for its intended purpose without repurposing it for law enforcement or selling it to tech developers as training data for racial recognition algorithms.
Cities should also develop data protocols to avoid unregulated data usage, she said. For example, a data minimization strategy can help agencies determine how long data should be held within their systems, which can reduce data storage costs as it builds community trust.
Such protocols also set the stage for future projects, Sanfilippo said. A thoughtful smart city strategy will help subsequent projects move more quickly in the future if, for example, stakeholders are confident in a city’s ability to complete a successful program.
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