Who gets to build the city of the future? Are such enormous projects only going to be possible for autocratic governments or freewheeling billionaires? Those questions are ones that Noah Redler wrestles with on a daily basis. The founder of the Smart City Experience, Noah works with Municipalities, community organizations and businesses to envision a different kind of smart city. One that is far more responsive to and designed for regular people.
What is a Smart City?
The definition is ever changing. It refers to using technology and data to build infrastructure, facilitate decision making, and make the city flow better. Redler defines a Smart City as “a place where we take the fundamentals of a city, enable our ability to collect a lot of data to help us make better decisions, and decide where we’re investing in the city in terms of the user experience.” A smart city is about making day-to-day processes such as trash collecting and license issuing simpler by facilitating them and increasing the interaction between the officials and the people
Not So Easy Though
Countries around the world are going smart. Many European countries have jumped on the bandwagon, Saudi Arabia recently announced plans to build a Smart City, and the Chinese are not behind either. However, as seen in Toronto, it’s not always an easy route.
“A smart city is a very technical, complex institution that requires technical standards, legislation changes, new norms, and more,” explains Redler.
It is not cheap to create such cities and budget can be an issue for some. A lot of cities allow citizens to participate in 20% of their city budget, decide how it’s getting spent. Cities have to win the trust of people before they can move ahead with the process. Some of us are too comfortable using outdated systems and don’t wish for things to change.
But You Can’t Stop Change
The best thing about change is that it’s inevitable. Cities today are not how they were a few hundred years ago. Living in a city today is a lot easier than it was a few years ago and we know that smart cities will make things even easier, but we can’t just jump the gun.
“You must remember that cities are still very human organizations,” explains Redler while highlighting how a small change can affect millions of people.
He continues, “it’s the way cities are set up right now. It’s very siloed. The entire organizational structure has to change for it to be efficient.”
He believes that we will change but it can take a while to get people on the same platform.
The Right Solution
The solution lies in educating people. You can’t just introduce a service, even if it’s an improvement, and expect people to flock to it. We have seen how despite going digital, around seven percent of people in Ontario still don’t pay their taxes online. A city cannot afford to neglect such people. We have to think about why they’re not paying their taxes online. Is it due to a lack of exposure or training? Is it because they have no internet access? Such problems have to be solved before cities can introduce a new concept.
Innisfil Is Doing it Right
Despite being a small town, Innisfil appears to be making major strikes. Experts believe that being a small town has its perks. There’s more flexibility for smaller jurisdictions like Innisfil to try and pursue a project like The Orbit because you’re not necessarily stepping on too many other feet that are already there.
“The ability to build from the ground up is 100% more advantageous than having to retrofit a city that already exists, especially a metropolis.”
He emphasizes the need to “build a city that allows itself to evolve year after year, so that we don’t have to rebuild it again.”
He’s hoping The Orbit to be a success and believes that it can create a circular ripple effect of expansion, resulting in larger projects.
Building the Right Smart City
As mentioned earlier, Smart Cities are built for the future. They need to be self-sufficient and evolving but it isn’t easy because our society is constantly changing. Some people think that increased density, a move away from cars, and ubiquitous connectivity are the three big pillars of the concept. However, Redler believes that it’s difficult to try and boil down the key features of what a smart city should be. He doesn’t believe in the concept of increased density.
“I think I’m in the minority in this but I think that’s not where Smart Cities are going to go,” he predicts explaining how the pandemic has pushed people out of major cities.
He expects people to spread out more and take on remote jobs. He does, however, believe that “the part about cars makes sense” while talking about how he doesn’t drive anymore due to parking-related issues. Lastly, he believes that “connectivity is essential,” explaining how the pandemic has highlighted the importance of living in an interconnected world.
Corporations Taking Leads
Redler expects big corporations to be a major part of the change.
“We all have to realize that no matter what the situation comes, it will be a mix of the two. No city is going to set up their own cloud servers or develop their own algorithms internally, there’s a supplier process for that,” he says while explaining why the big corporations have shown interest in smart cities and why cities are interested in joining hands with major names despite some Google-backed projects not finding much success.
Fighting the Pushback
Smart cities are complex projects that require years of work and research. Not putting the required time and going all out without winning the trust of the people can cause them to revolt. The purpose of introducing new technologies is to make things easier for the people. It is important to understand citizens and their needs before going big.
All About People
The key lies in getting people onboard. Redler believes that people have a lot of great ideas while sharing an anecdote:
“I asked somebody just a few days ago, what’s one thing you would want to see in a smart city? And his answer was perfect. And symbols like, I would like to be able to take a photo of a pothole on my street, send it off upload to an app and somebody comes in to repair it without me having to think about it.”
The Last Statement
“Anybody interested in getting involved in smart cities or thinking about a project should start small. Don’t get overwhelmed and think about how you can be innovative,” suggests Redler.
Check the complete episode for some more great tips and insights from the man himself.