On Location: APA 2011, Boston

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf “Revolutions in science are preceded by revolutions in measurement.” – Benjamin de la Pena

Technology Infrastructure and Planning Session

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve spent the last few days in Boston at the American Planning Association’s annual conference.  I wanted to write one post focused on a session I attended on Monday, entitled Technology Infrastructure and Planning.

With speakers from IBM, CISCO, and the Rockefeller Foundation, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, given that this is a planning conference.  However, as readers of this blog will know, I am very interested in the nexus of urban planning and technology, and to my pleasant surprise, this session did not disappoint.  It was probably the most thought-provoking session I attended all weekend.  Readers may want to refer to a previous blog post on “corporate planning” to learn about the planning-related initiatives of CISCO, IBM, and others. Gordon Feller of CISCO emphasized that as technology progresses and infiltrates city management further and further, we will experience a profound shift in the role of planners specifically and of government in general.  All of the speakers mentioned the concept of ERP – enterprise resource planning.  These are technology systems currently in place and used heavily by large corporations to manage and track their operations.  The speakers posited that soon we will have ERP for cities (both IBM and CISCO are currently working on it).

The implication of this is that planners will need to be extremely data savvy.  In the near term, planners could have access to extremely rich and structured data in real-time – strong evidence to defend or refute particular stakeholders’ beliefs.  In the long term, the possibilities are both amazing and frightening.  There will be a need for stronger public-private partnerships, with private companies providing and constructing the physical infrastructure (fiber optic cables, monitoring devices, etc.) and the public sector managing the data and leveraging it for decision making in ways we have yet to imagine.

That said, several early examples already do exist.  CISCO is actually constructing its own smart city in Korea – Songdo.  This is similar to Masdar City, which we previously covered.  Barcelona has designated a sector of the city as an innovation lab (22@Barcelona), where smart city concepts are tested in real time.  In 2005, Bill Clinton challenged cities to minimize their carbon footprint by making planning an integral aspect of the solution.  CISCO conducted pilots in three worldwide cities as part of its associated Connected Urban Development program: Seoul, Amsterdam, and San Francisco.  Urban Ecomap was one of the products of that program.  Blaise Aguera of Microsoft Bing demonstrates in this TEDx talk how his company is producing augmented reality maps, which have many applications for planning including data collection, community engagement, and visualization.

John Tolva, the speaker from IBM, took a reverse approach and highlighted examples of how technologists could learn from the experiences of planners and the built environment.  He emphasized a few key learnings: throughput is not connectivity; it’s easy to confuse the use of a system with the need for a system; data alone is not sufficient for problem solving, but combined with an involved community it just may be.

Benjamin de la Pena of the Rockefeller Foundation also gave an extremely insightful presentation, closing out with some cautionary notes.  I will name a few.  The reliance on data and technology may undermine our own best interests – it can be systematically exclusionary as was exemplified as far back as Athens, Greece in its democratization process.  Some of our most ambitious feats have also turned out to be great failures on certain dimensions – he cited our highway system as connecting our country but dividing our neighborhoods.  Red lining was also data driven, hardly something to be proud of.  Data literacy and transparency will be of the utmost importance: citizens must be able to trust that city managers have their best interest in mind, providing information that is not purposefully hiding misleading but rather empowering.

As a graduate student in planning, I’ll be paying heightened attention to the progress in technology infrastructure in cities and the public-private relationships that will result.  It has great implications for my, and our, future.

-Terra Curtis

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