Purposeful, Responsible, and Open Smart Cities

Note: This article originally appeared as a MetroLab Network guest post in Data-Smart Cities Solutions. You can find the original posting and more information about the Data-Smart Cities Solutions here.

We are in the early days of smart cities which fuse the physical and the digital realms, enabling people and autonomous systems to respond in real time to vast amounts of new data. The inputs: sensors, drones, video cameras, and other urban instruments that will gather data about the movement of people and monitor our built and natural environments. The expected output: cities more capable of achieving their priorities related to sustainability, resilience, and operations, and citizens better prepared to navigate their cities and services. Like the beginning of any trend, uncertainty reigns.

This new model requires the widespread use of advanced analytics techniques that allow cities to process and act upon data in real time, resulting in efficiencies in transportation, energy, water, waste management, and other services. Data from urban instruments will be integrated with administrative and operational data (e.g., health, housing, transit), allowing policymakers and scientists to discover new insights about urban systems. Residents can make data-informed decisions in their daily lives (e.g., commuting) and will be empowered by data to effect change (e.g., improving air quality). In this scenario, technology will provide critical solutions to challenges associated with rapid urbanization. Our transportation systems and public facilities will become more sustainable, lowering the carbon footprint of cities. And through better management of infrastructure, our cities will become more resilient to disruptions — from manmade and natural disasters to routine challenges like snowstorms and potholes.

At the same time, concerns loom. It is unlikely we descend into an urban dystopia, marked by constant surveillance of individuals’ movements and conversations (though technology will make such activity possible). That said, privacy, cyber-security, and other socio-technical issues must be top-of-mind. We must implement transparent policy and technical safeguards, without which some instrumentation activities could result in the generation and storage of highly sensitive and personally-linked data that could be used nefariously by hackers or by the entities that own and operate technology platforms. And we must approach instrumentation strategically and holistically. Otherwise, we will stumble into balkanized data collection systems that involve numerous companies and agencies, which for proprietary, privacy, or turf issues undermine data integration that would otherwise enable cities’ sustainability, resilience, and operational goals.

The pathway to the optimistic picture — and the protections against the pessimistic one — will take years to solve and will require perhaps unprecedented collaboration across sectors. Early examples of open algorithms and open policy offer promising models. As the field continues to develop, we must proceed in a purposeful, responsible, and open way.


To achieve this goal, we are launching the MetroLab Roundtable Series on Urban Instrumentation. MetroLab is a national network of 40 partnerships between cities and universities that are focused on the research, development, and deployment of new technologies and approaches to urban challenges. Our city and university members — and the companies with which we collaborate — are on the frontier of a rapidly changing field. We are experimenting with promising new urban technologies while considering new questions about privacy and data collection.

The Roundtable Series will identify eight instrumentation topics — like air-quality sensing, video analytics for mobility, drones, and the use of satellite imagery — and gather leading voices from government, academia, industry, and non-profits to explore three themes that will be reflected in playbooks designed for cities.

Purpose. How do we cut through the noise of new technologies and solutions and map them to cities’ priorities? This initiative will lift the most promising case studies of successful deployments in each domain. It will frame opportunities presented by each urban instrumentation approach for mayors and their teams in ways that are honest about purpose, opportunities, and pitfalls.

Responsibility. How do we explore the socio-technical questions associated with urban instrumentation, including data civil rights, data storage, and cyber security? The initiative will provide mayors and their teams with actionable guidance in these domains for each instrumentation topic. It will leverage our broad network of city and university partners to gather and share tested materials like privacy principles and technology strategies that offer safeguards against governmental and/or industry overreach.

Openness. How do we move toward open science by making data associated with industry-managed urban instrumentation efforts available publically (though not necessarily openly due to privacy) in standard formats that can be used for analysis by open software and third party tools, for government practitioners, university scientists, and other stakeholders? How can we advocate for this approach and equip cities with the necessary enabling resources, including sample procurement language and data standards?

We are currently undertaking a planning process for the Roundtable Series, thanks to initial philanthropic support. The initiative will involve our members from cities and universities. City officials — including those who manage agencies and technology/innovation portfolios — bring unique perspectives related to policy development, city operations, and community engagement. University representatives’ subject-matter expertise helps align technology and analytics solutions to those priorities and perspectives. The effort will also include partners and collaborators from industry, non-profits, philanthropy, and the policy community.


Ben Hecht, President & CEO of Living Cities, wrote that “collaboration is the new competition” in the Harvard Business Review. He identified five lessons for driving change through collaboration: 1) clearly define what you can do together; 2) transcend parochialism; 3) adapt to data; 4) feed the field; and 5) support the backbone.

Urban instrumentation is defined by rapid change, new markets, and socio-technical complexity. Our ability to navigate toward the ultimate goals ⎻ including sustainability, resilience, and operational efficiencies ⎻ will require a commitment to those principles of collaboration. The Roundtable Series on Urban Instrumentation is a first collective step as we march to a rhythm of purpose, responsibility, and openness.

By: Ben Levine, Executive Director, MetroLab Network and Charlie Catlett, Santiago Garces, Christine Kendrick and Michael Mattmiller, Co-Chairs of the Roundtable Series on Urban Instrumentation