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In Focus: Redefining the “Smart” in Smart Cities

Emerging robotics and AI technologies can help meet critical goals of connectivity, equity, and sustainability.

Q1 2022
The term “smart cities” has a certain aura — it promises to solve the problems urban areas face using technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, digital cameras, and sensor networks.

The potential of smart city solutions is seemingly limitless — the market opportunity ( estimated at $741.6 billion in 2020) is boundless, and there are many problems to be solved. In its simplest definition, a smart city is one that uses data gathered through its operations to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of those same operations. But for a city to truly be smart, it needs to go beyond data and technology and focus on addressing the root causes of inequities and improving quality of life for all its residents.

A Prime Example
Most U.S. cities are still using “old” technologies created a century ago — like the traffic signal, water/sewer systems, and street lights — and 43 percent of our nation’s public roadways are in poor or mediocre condition. But in Pittsburgh, “Smart City” solutions have been under way for some time and are now expanding more extensively. Sometimes smart city technology is a cute personal delivery robot that distributes packages to doorsteps. More often, however, it is like Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) spinout Rapidflow’s Surtrac. Surtrac is a machine learning algorithm that guides an autonomous network of sensors and cameras in real time to help manage traffic, reducing travel time by 25 percent, idle times by 40 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

Further, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, housed within Carnegie Mellon University, collaborated with numerous nonprofit and municipal partners to enable Rapidflow’s founder, Professor Stephen Smith, and his team to develop a similar AI algorithm. The technology was developed to optimize the delivery of more than 100,000 meals to families in need in Penn Hills, McKeesport, and McKees Rocks. While this might not fit the traditional definition of a “smart city” project, it is a perfect example of how to deploy technology to equitably solve real-world problems, which is the core of our work at Metro21.

The recently signed $1T Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is critically important for the equitable, inclusive, and sustainable deployment of smart cities technology. When it comes to safety and security applications, smart cities technology has been criticized for its role in perpetuating bias — implicit or explicit — and institutional racism. Facial recognition software has come under fire for exacerbating mistrust in communities of color. Several cities, including Minneapolis, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Boston, have banned government use of facial recognition software over concerns of bias and privacy. This fall, in collaboration with CMU’s Heinz College and Traffic21 Institute, Metro21 convened a three-part series featuring national and local experts and advocates to shed light on the issue of justice and smart cities technology.

What we learned is that cities are complicated; there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution when it comes to deployment of smart cities technology; and it is critical that deployments are done in a transparent, iterative, and collaborative way to build trust in communities.

Weighing Costs vs. Benefits
In collaboration with its 70+ municipal and equity partners, Metro21 has deployed more than 60 pilot projects throughout the Pittsburgh region to better understand the intended, and often unintended, consequences of technology implementation. Sometimes we help spin out companies and learn that technology alone cannot solve the real-world problem because the cost of deployment far outweighs the benefits.

Therefore, the recently signed $1T Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is critically important for the equitable, inclusive, and sustainable deployment of smart cities technology by focusing on solving real-world problems that are often complicated, messy, and unattractive.

The $65B broadband investment that is part of the infrastructure bill has the potential to enable the equitable deployment of smart cities technology in areas that previously could not have imagined such opportunity.

We can redefine the “smart” in smart cities — by enabling communities to be connected, equitable, and sustainable.

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