Smart Cities, Stupid Cities, and How Data Can Be Used to Solve Urban Policy Problems

Aug 29, 2017 12:10 PM ET

Smart Cities, Stupid Cities, and How Data Can be Used to Solve Urban Policy Pro…

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The idea that we can and should use data to solve urban policy problems is widely accepted among policy makers, academic researchers and in the business community. Most mayors have accepted the value of data driven policy by signing on to what might be called the “smart city movement.” Not all urban leaders actually know what it means to be a smart city though. Some envision a futuristic city that looks like a scene out of an old Jetsons cartoon — a place where we would just press buttons on a computer and services would be delivered in an effective and efficient way. Others are more realistic in their understanding of what data and technology can do to improve city services. They would be happy, for example, with street lights that turn on at night and go off in the morning. However, one thing all mayors agree upon, no one wants to live in a “stupid city.” A successful city in the 21st century has become, by definition, a smart city.

Smart city, in some sense, has become an aspirational term, where we have deeply embedded the idea that we can develop and implement public policy without making mistakes. Since that is completely unrealistic, we need a more practical and empirically-based definition to work with. For our purpose, a smart city makes data and technology usable and accessible to solve urban problems with the promise of efficiency and effectiveness in delivering public services. By focusing on the utility of data in improving public services (as opposed to serving private interests), we are using data for “good.” Data can be used in every aspect of urban governance: to enhance citizen engagement; design policy; analyze the budget implications of policy alternatives; implement programs; monitor program operations for effectiveness and equity; and improve the efficiency of service delivery.

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