Building Smart Cities With, Not For, Our Residents

Rob Phocas, Energy & Sustainability Manager, City of Charlotte
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Rob Phocas, Energy & Sustainability Manager, City of Charlotte

Rob Phocas, Energy & Sustainability Manager, City of Charlotte

I like the latest “smart” technology as much as the next person.

Be it a smart streetlight, a digital kiosk, or a solar powered bench that charges your smart device and counts passers-by, it is hard not to find futuristic features appealing.

But as a sustainability director and public servant, I must look past that cool factor. At a recent smart cities conference at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the conference organizers asked the presenters to answer a question during their remarks: “Can innovative smart city technology create coherent and inclusive cities?” For those following the arch of the smart cities conversation, this is a very timely question, as we see more and more cities beginning to focus their smart city efforts on their residents first rather than on the technologies. What started as an industry-lead effort focused on promoting the latest gadgets to municipalities is shifting to a municipal-lead effort to understand which of these gadgets can help staff achieve their mayor and/or city council’s goals of creating a great quality of life for their residents.

Charlotte’s approach is no different, which is why my answer to the question about technology creating coherent and inclusive cities was, “No.” It is people, after understanding the unique needs of their residents, who will use these innovative smart technologies to create coherent and inclusive cities, not technology alone.

 Succeeding at equitable community engagement will take more than just meeting with neighborhood presidents 

This concept of building with our residents and not for them, was recently summarized by my colleague at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Dr. Douglas Shoemaker, when he wrote.

Worldwide, the dominant smart city narrative is a futuristic vision of how new digital infrastructure will allow us to wire, monitor and efficiently control the urban milieu: a “Fitbit” for the city. While this is a useful and feasible approach particularly from the viewpoint of governance, this story of quantifiable city is unable to speak to the real-world problems generated by this new world: how to be a citizen when your presence must not be simply geographic but also digital? How to take advantage of emerging opportunities when new skills and costly new hardware are needed? Getting these answers wrong has real consequences: being left behind in a digital urban revolution. This is the digital divide.

As enablers of this smart technology, we run the risk of widening this digital divide if we do not work hand in hand with those we seek to empower through its use. Truly smart cities will require concurrent investments in human and social capital as well as upgrades to traditional sector infrastructures in order to realize broadly distributed benefits and sustainability gains.

This is the approach Charlotte is taking as we develop and implement the North End Smart District (NESD), a 3.6 square mile area with eight distinct neighborhoods due north of Charlotte’s Uptown. For this project, we have defined a “smart city” as one that collaborates to use data and technology to inform decision-making and action on issues such as mobility, safety, energy efficiency, community services, education, and environmental health. Our vision for the NESD is to create a vibrant center for economic development and job growth with a great quality of life fueled by data, innovative technologies, and collaboration on a foundation of equitable community engagement.

Equitable community engagement is the cornerstone of the work being done and we began it by meeting with the eight leaders of the neighborhoods in the NESD. At the initial meeting we shared our vision, which we based on our colleagues’ understanding of the needs of these residents, but we spent just as much time listening and discussing. We have followed this initial meeting with several more aimed at fleshing out what it will mean to build with the NESD residents rather than for them.

But succeeding at equitable community engagement will take more than just meeting with neighborhood presidents. There are many obstacles that must be overcome and that go much deeper than learning new technology. To this end, Charlotte applied for and recently was awarded a grant from the “Partners for Places Equity Pilot Initiative-a project of the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities.” This grant will enable us to move our conversation to much larger audiences of residents in the NESD.

As Diane Ives, fund advisor for The Kendeda Fund’s People, Place and Planet program, stated, “We need to put equity at the heart of community-based sustainability efforts to ensure that everyone has a chance to live in a vibrant, healthy, resilient community regardless of their zip code.” Our goal is to create an accessible smart city platform where residents provide input, align community goals and needs, and collaborate on meaningful projects. Through engagement, we will work with the NESD residents to develop and implement together four projects: Healthy Communities; Neighborhood Transportation; Smart Homes/ Neighborhoods; and Technology Training Programs/Pipeline.

Partners will develop relationships, a shared understanding, and test engagement components related to reaching residents, who may not already be a part of the conversation. From past experiences and our recent dialogues, we understand there are many obstacles to sustained participation in projects: childcare; meals; transportation; convenient times and locations; cultural and racial barriers; and a shared language around the projects. Our work will be the foundation of our future engagement strategy, action, results, and feedback loop in the NESD and hopefully in other projects in Charlotte.

We understand that we face a difficult task. Effective, sustained community engagement is already difficult without adding in innovative smart technologies that are foreign to many. However, we believe the promise of these technologies when combined with a people-centric approach, will allow us, and many other municipalities, to reach their respective goals.

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