Left to right: Paul Doherty, Debra Lam, and Anthony Townsend
Tracie Ching Left to right: Paul Doherty, Debra Lam, and Anthony Townsend

ARCHITECT: How do you currently define a smart city? I say “currently” because the definition has evolved as technologies have come and gone, and as experiments have failed or succeeded.

Lam: I think of smart cities as a process because it’s a change in local context and improvements in technology. It’s not an end state. You don’t suddenly declare yourself a smart city and then forget about it.

You’re starting out with a challenge, problem, or mission and thinking about what hardware, research, and processes are available in the toolkit. But it’s not led by technology and it’s not some sort of shiny object to just purchase and think you’re smart.

Townsend: There’s been effort over the years to formally define smart cities by the British Standards Institution, a variety of U.S.–based organizations, and some consulting companies like Arup. To me, it’s a movement that’s about using digital technology to solve the timeless problems of cities—the same problems that mayors in Ancient Rome had to solve: How do you collect the trash? How do you secure the streets? How do you address chariot congestion in the center of the city? Now it’s Ubers, but it’s still ride for hire.

We have solutions for urban problems but often they’re too costly or there’s political gridlock that prevents the solutions we have from being implemented. And sometimes these new digital tools provide shortcuts.

Doherty: Smart cities are about the collision of industries [that hopefully leads to] a domino effect. My company takes an approach of innovations as ingredients to create recipes that are unique for a particular part of the world because there is no big silver bullet. But when we start to take a look at the data-driven ways of [collecting and analyzing] static data as opposed to kinetic data, that’s where the value proposition is.

The state of data—the accuracy, its authenticity, and its trust—is variable. It’s all over the place, and the hardest part of our job is figuring out what’s the authenticated data so we can start using technologies to understand what happens when you digitize a process that has not been digitized in the past. The biggest challenge to the profession is to anticipate needs that don’t exist right now.

What are the benefits of smart cities for the public—for the users?

Townsend: That’s still an open question. The whole movement began with a bunch of claims mostly coming from a handful of big IT companies: IBM and Cisco framed it early on about efficiency largely delivered through better infrastructure and better operations that upgraded 20th-century hardware in energy, water, traffic, and security.

There was a lot of virtue to that. There was a lot of waste in our existing physical systems and the way they’re operated, and a lot of opportunities to interconnect and apply systems thinking. But in many ways it was oversold: It was never going to solve the systemic problems we’re facing—climate change, migration, security, sustainability.

A different vision has bubbled up—from citizens, civil society, small business, and entrepreneurs—that’s about the way we live, and the things that have been created by those people have a lot more to do with convenience, transparency, living cleaner and healthier, and connecting the natural environment back into the urban world. What a smart city can deliver depends on what your goals are. And what your goals are depend on the politics and social makeup, who is in the city, who has power and what they’re trying to achieve.

We’re seeing this play out right now in clear terms in Toronto with Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto trying to develop what’s probably the most valuable piece of waterfront property in North America as a smart district using everything the Alphabet family brings in terms of its ability to sense, manipulate, and influence the physical world through the analysis and transformation of data. And they have done it in a way that did not reflect what the community wanted.

I would take issue with [Doherty’s] comment earlier that the mission now is to come up with ideas for what we can do. People in cities know what their problems are and have a fairly decent sense of how they can be solved. What they need from technologists are solutions to the problems they identify.

Debra, you were instrumental to developing the “Pittsburgh Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation.” Who did you find were the most necessary stakeholders in this process of smart city planning?

Lam: First, it’s not just identifying those stakeholders: It’s how you continue to engage with them and how you build their trust so they become active owners of this process as much as you are. And that’s the difficulty. You can put together a town hall, sure, you can do an introduction, but how do you sustain that communications process? How do you take out barriers that prevent people from joining and from continuing that conversation?

Smart cities are a lot about the technology and the infrastructure. Many communities are cognizant of the big infrastructure plans from the ’50s and ’60s that, in terms of transportation, actually divided a lot of neighborhoods. So we’re coming back to the same communities with ambitious goals to transform them with a lot of technology, data, and infrastructure, knowing that they were harmed by some of these big modernization efforts in the past.

It’s important to go into those communities understanding that history and knowing you are always actively working to build and maintain that trust in order to be successful in engagement.

Doherty: When I mentioned the collision of industries before, it’s also about the collisions and conversations that can happen between government and its constituents. We’re finding that those conversations are either very short and canned, or they’re forced down people’s throats—in totalitarian governments in particular—which is a much different way of viewing what is a high-performing urban environment.

The storytelling mechanisms we’re looking to collide involve Hollywood—not to create Disney World or, god forbid, another Dubai that has no context or soul behind it—but something that can be part of the ingredients to create that recipe. Why do you want to be in a pop-up city that’s never existed before—to raise your family, get a better education, to get better healthcare? The people do know what they want, but you also don’t want to implement a technology for technology’s sake unless you know what the ramifications are.

Why are companies like Google, or Alphabet, and IBM interested in the smart city?

Doherty: Google is a machine, like a locomotive that needs coal to work. Its main goal is to have private-public people’s information as its coal. The Sidewalk Labs opportunity is a good idea—to boomerang innovations that may happen elsewhere into district-sized solutions so people start to adopt and change behavior, and see the results that it would scale.

The opportunity to also be that data-capturing mechanism is something a private company thrives for. We have a moral and ethical issue here because if Toronto acquiesces and says, “This is good enough,” we’re going to have this public trust entity that Google is going to feed so that anyone can come in, petition, and create apps and other smart city solutions over a period of time.

That sounds good, but the reason prominent Canadian privacy figures are resigning from the task force is that, at its essence, Quayside is capturing the fuel for Google. I don’t know how an American company can come in and take Canadian private information and think it’s going to be able to get away with that.

And the solution is cloudy. It’s a $1.1 billion investment by Google into the Quayside project. Who else is going to absorb that $1.1 billion if Waterfront Toronto says, “No,” and Google says, “Well, tough luck”?

This is the double edge of smart cities: How much do we want to maintain the anonymous way of living and working? [What can we] get back from these tools that will measurably increase of quality of life?

Lam: It’s interesting how tech companies have evolved in this space as well. It was driven by sales at the beginning. You had a team of salespeople that were tracked in terms of their performance by the hardware and the software they needed to sell and push out.

And when you’re driven that way, then you can’t really think about the users’ needs and appreciate the bigger factor that we’re all outlined in. Where I think it is slowly and effectively making real purpose is to understand beyond just the sales of it: how technology can be that connector toward citizens because there is good in technology and it can be an empowering tool. It’s a matter of changing the conversation and the dialogue so you’re not driven by those types of metrics, but driven more by the impact that the technology can do in terms of transforming the lives of citizens.

And that’s where we need to get into this next stage of smart city development.

Townsend: The online industry press tends to see [smart cities] in terms of clicks, eyeballs, and data. And there certainly is a lot of that at stake. But as an urban planner, you also have to look at it from the conventional land-grab aspect of it. What is the actual physical territory these companies are trying to claim?

Sidewalk in Toronto is a very good example where when we boil it down to what that project is really after: It’s control of that land. If you look at Alphabet’s broader financial portfolio, it’s part of the diversification of that portfolio out of tech stocks, its own stocks, and other tech company stocks, and cash into real estate that it’s been executing for the last 10 years. And Toronto is a nice, safe place to park a couple billion dollars in some waterfront real estate that isn’t as susceptible to sea level rise as the other places along the coast that it’s parked its money.

The distribution infrastructure Amazon Whole Foods is building out is a land grab. They’re trying to establish a footprint that will allow them to essentially take out a large swath of the retail sector in the U.S. whenever they choose to execute that strategy as they have done online.

Uber’s abrasive congestion pricing is basically a strategy to collude with local governments to set up a regulatory regime where it can afford to engage in a war of attrition with its competitors. It is the only one who has enough money to survive. And then it’ll control what the price of the congestion is because it’ll have the only vehicles on the road.

So all these companies are actually fighting. There’s a lot of data, clicks, and abstract digital things floating around but they’re really weapons in a war over urban territory. And we shouldn’t forget that because that’s where our skills and experiences as planners and architects and people in government are relevant even though we may not understand all the nuances of deep learning and data-sharing covenants.

Lam: [In Pittsburgh,] we implemented RFID tag sensors on our trash cans in a neighborhood thinking that it would be more efficient [for workers to] only pick up the trash when [the cans were] full rather than stop by stop, and therefore we could divert the sanitation workers to do other things in public works.

We thought that was an empowering way to look at data—we were informed by the trash fillage. What we didn’t account for was the sanitation workers themselves. So if a sanitation worker takes pride in doing 50 trash cans each day, and [suddenly] you tell them to do less, then they weren’t quite sure about what they saw as their job and what needed to be done. And this experience was meaningful because we thought we would be informed by the data. But we didn’t account for the people that were involved at the heart of this project, how they would be affected by this project, and how to incorporate those needs.

Obviously there’s a lot of talk about the privacy and security, and we can have individual [discussions] devoted to a lot of those issues and standards. But when we’re talking about the power of data and what it can do with a community, it’s important to go back to basics: Who is the recipient, who is the end user and the input factor of data, and what does that all mean?

“[W]hen we’re talking about the power of data and what it can do with a community, it’s important to go back to basics: Who is the recipient, who is the end user and the input factor of data, and what does that all mean?”

What is an ideal scenario for data ownership and management? What should cities, communities, or facility managers be looking and asking for?

Townsend: This is the one promising thing that has come out of Sidewalk in Toronto. The way Sidewalk has structured the conversation about data governance has not been ideal. But where it has gotten to is not that Sidewalk will keep all the data and license it, or share it or give it away under a corporate licensing structure or a traditional open data public sector model. The documents that Sidewalk has put out are a great start to a more nuanced data governance structure. It starts to break down what are the different levels of concern we should have: Who are the different stakeholders that overlap with these different types of data and different realms in which they’re collected? How do we need to handle them? What are the risks associated with them?

Data trusts may not be the right way to govern it; there are other models, such as data collaboratives. The California Data Collaborative is hundreds of water utilities sharing their customer data in a closed yet open forum that allows them to tell stories with data about all the things that they’ve done to conserve water during this historic drought.

Cities will have to take a look at their founding documents and come up with a process that allows them to create a new foundation for managing information. I’m sure Debra has tons of stories about [how] every agency, every city, every level of government does it differently and none of them work together, and, as a result, we have huge inefficiencies. We have mistakes made, but we have lots of opportunities for innovation that are left on the table.

Doherty: New city charters should be built around these discussion points because there’s not one universal answer that is a silver bullet that everyone should adopt. We focus as a business on three big areas: safety, security, and a measurable increase of quality of life. Can we create an environment that allows that city to take on its own personality, take on its own soul, and take on its own mythology so we can create urban environments that are [neither] Blade Runner [nor] utopia, but somewhere in between that [can] grow organically and actually create a safer, more secure, and higher quality of life around the world?

Promotional video for Neom

Many members have withdrawn from the advisory board of Neom, in Saudi Arabia, due to the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Meanwhile, Google employees are protesting the company’s creation of Project Dragonfly, a censored internet search engine for China. What are the ethical and moral obligations you must weigh when you consider working on smart cities in these countries? [Note: Doherty and his company, TDG, are currently a consultant to the Saudi Royal Court.]

Doherty: What we’re trying to aspire to deliver is to increase the human condition. If that is the overall goal, we have to weigh events and great challenges on a per project basis—you can’t holistically damn an entire country and/or people when there is a direct need. So how do you start to balance [between] not rewarding bad behavior [and focusing] on things that have meaning? Case in point is Saudi Arabia: We are focused on the Arab youth, the future of how that country starts to move forward with or without the current leadership.

The U.S. departments of State and Commerce have been great from a guidance aspect. In the case of China, we rely on our relationship with U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad and his staff in Beijing along with the consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou. Where we are constantly benchmarking ourselves against is, “Is this going to cause any issue from your perspective as the American government?” And we have to take two steps back and say, “What’s the perception, and what does it mean when we’re talking about such an aspirational way of looking at cities—which affects [everything] from supply chain to the inhabitants to the visitors to [how] it resonates globally?” It’s a responsibility. I’d be a liar to say we don’t stay up at night worried about this stuff because we don’t want to do the wrong thing [and] we know we do a lot of things right. So [we check in with our advisers] to understand what’s the real story, what’s the other side of the story, and then make choices to move forward or not.

In the case of Neom, it’s such a large project that any one event should not derail the overall aspiration for that project. I understand the immediate need of taking two steps back. Some people resigned, other people said we’re not going to participate at this moment with what we can deliver here, and I think that is a personal and/or a business choice that is needed for right now.

But if you’re playing the long game, we need to start rethinking why you would be an advisory board member to begin with. Is it that you have a skill set that is [useful] right now, or is [the project] something that actually has the aspiration in place so that the vision and mission become something that is looked upon rather than the immediate reaction to a political situation?

What rules of thumb do you recommend in the approach to smart cities, and what often gets overlooked?

Lam: I don’t think we figured it out yet, but I do think we are more cognizant of the problems that have arisen in the past and what damage could result. The biggest issue around smart cities right now [that also has] the biggest potential is around equity and [using the] agency [offered] with technology and data to address some of these critical equity issues with the community.

At Georgia Tech, we are looking at a smart community core where we’re trying to embed students and researchers into some of these communities to look at these issues and unlock some of those challenges.

Once you have that research in place, [you have] essentially what I’m calling the building blocks of a smart city development. And [then] you can layer on additional tools and partnerships that strengthen the foundation of a smart community development. Smart cities are about long-term engagement—infrastructure that’s multi-generations. It’s certainly important to have wins to keep motivated, but you are trying to embed community change, and that’s not something that’s going to be done within a budget cycle or an election cycle.

Townsend: What I think is often overlooked is planning. There’s only a handful of cities around the world that actually systematically plan for their smart city strategy. And even [among] those, it’s a small effort inside the mayor’s office that often results in more of a political document than a serious operational document.

[Smart cities require] drawing upon all of the departments in government. It’s often drawing substantially on the private sector. Ideally, it should draw upon NGOs both for problem identification, but also for implementation of big parts of the strategy.

“There’s only a handful of cities around the world that actually systematically plan for their smart city strategy. And even [among] those, it’s a small effort inside the mayor’s office that often results in more of a political document than a serious operational document.”

It requires a lot of resources, work, time, and engagement. And it’s not something that can be thrown together quickly by staff behind closed doors. And I think most cities fail to take that seriously.

Best practices are emerging and we’ve documented some of them. There are consultants that do this now, so cities have resources to draw upon when they need help. This idea of digital master planning or smart city planning might be here to stay in the same way, like 10 years ago, no one knew how to do a sustainability plan. Now, it’s a bread-and-butter thing that cities do.

Doherty: I thought the point was well made that [smart cities] were [once] about selling product—routers and data centers and things like that. This is fast evolving into a much deeper meaning in the contextualization of what humans need, which then increases sales. If you can imagine the size of the projects we’re working on, we’re talking anywhere from a five- to 15-year build-out at billions of dollars.

When I’m talking about getting a kitchen inside of a home, I’m not talking about the sale of one refrigerator—I’m talking about 500,000 refrigerators. You start seeing why CNBC, Bloomberg, and Forbes are focused on our industry for the first time in a positive light, saying, “Wow, this is an economic driver because the world’s population is moving into these urban environments.” What are those urban environments like? And how can we start to see into the future so we can backtrack in a critical path to find out where we need to start spending our resources so we can deliver these urban environments?

What we’re challenged with is how we can put our own viewpoint on this as we start to see the people wanting to have more.

In other words, stop taking a look at the city council and city departments as a place where you have to go for a building permit and hearings. Yes, that still has to happen, but I think the conversation is changing because they’re also looking for help. And who are they going to? People like Cisco, Schneider Electric, IBM, and Huawei, who really don’t have the instinctual knowledge of what we possess as built environment professionals. And then they have to come back to us.

Let’s cut out the middle man and start having those conversations for real because this is the challenge of our lifetime. We need to have the academics and the consultants of the world also participate because we can all learn from each other. There is no one person doing smart cities—and that’s “the only way” to do it.

By creating those environments of learning, we are now bringing in these collisions of groups—like the Wanda Groups, the Disneys, the Warner Brothers, the Sonys—because they have a conversation at this table as well. So this combination of how to pull together experts and deliver a project is no different than [that for executing] a single building [for] a typical AEC project. All we’re doing is scaling that.

And I don’t think there’s any one profession better able to have that type of holistic view—but then also take a micro view to actually deliver things—than architecture.

Note: This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. This article initially appeared as "What Is a Smart City? We're Working On It" in the January 2019 issue of ARCHITECT.