Point of View: “Smart Cities,’ and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice


Point of View: “Smart Cities,’ and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

had the privilege of attending the “Smart Cities Connect” event in Austin, TX. After spending a couple of days with the movers and shakers of “smart cities,” I’m not sure what to think.

First of all, I’m in the parking business.  At this late June event, attended by a large number of cities focused on “smart” – some of which actually took exhibitor space to promote their “smartness”– there was no mention of “parking.”  Well, that’s not quite true; in the program, there were directions as to where to park at the Austin Convention Center.

I did attend one session on “mobility,” where two of the panelists were from parking vendors, ParkiFi and Cale.  They were the only parking-related companies at the entire event.  At this session, I created a furor when I asked “why parking isn’t a topic for discussion in the smart cities genre.” I was told in no uncertain terms that they “loved parking,” that “parking was sexy,” and the like.

I told the moderator there was no need to be defensive, but I thought that because virtually everyone living in a city had parking on their agenda, it would seem logical that a so-called smart city conference would have it on its agenda, too.

Later, I walked into the city of Portland’s booth and asked about its “smart parking” component and was told, again in no uncertain terms, that parking wasn’t in its wheelhouse, because the goal was to remove cars, and hence parking, from the city. Move along, please; there’s nothing to see here.

I began thinking about agendas, and just what the long-term agenda of those cities trying to become smart actually was. Was it to make the city more livable? Was it to enable the city government to save money by using data to run its operation more effectively? Or was it to redesign the city in the vision of those who had such a vision?

I then read an article by Astrid Ambroziak (which can be found elsewhere in this issue of Parking Today) in which the Editor of our ParkNews.biz website posits that rather than focusing on the technology portion of smart cities that perhaps we should deal in the residents of cities and become “conscious,” rather than “smart.”  Her summary:

Perhaps it is time for us to all pause and put people first and technology that serves them second.  In parking, transit, urban planning, it is time for us to look within, engage and listen, thus creating conscious, emotionally intelligent cities and not just cold mechanical smart cities.

At the Smart Cities Connect conference, I got the feeling that everyone had an agenda, and few were actually listening to the people in the city. The exhibitors wanted to sell gizmos that would find and collect data. The consultants wanted to help cities select the “right” gizmo. And the cities wanted to show off their “smartness.”

Let’s face it, delivering electricity and water and lighting services, along with more efficient trash collection, isn’t really going to make a heck of a lot of difference to me as a resident. I get lights now; I will have lights later.

What will make a difference is how I can streamline the parking of my car.

The smart city crowd wants to do away with my car. But have they asked me what I want to do with it?  Probably not.

I was most impressed with one story I heard at the confab. It brought to mind Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” and Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For those of you who remember, the cute little rodent worked for the Sorcerer. The boss left him in charge, and who could resist putting on that pointy hat and picking up the magic wand?

Mickey was supposed to carry water, but he found that with a few waves of the wand, he could get the brooms to carry the water, without having to work up a sweat. Of course, all hell breaks loose as the brooms bring more and more water and begin to flood the castle. Mickey can’t stop the onslaught, and is swept up in the tsunami. The Sorcerer arrives in the nick of time and saves the day, and a chastened mouse goes back to what he does best.

Oh, yes, the story. It seems that an electricity supplier for a major city in the Northeast had a data collection operation going on. When begun a couple of decades ago, they were collecting a gigabyte of data a year. Time passed, and they began to install sensors throughout their network. Today, they collect a gigabyte every 30 minutes.

Is it possible to be able to actually use those nearly 18 terabytes of raw data? Who is the sorcerer, and what kind of magic wand is going to be used? 

And keep in mind that the data equaling 18 terabytes were from the electric company alone. What happens when you add in streets, trash collection, lights, traffic signals, police, fire, CCTV cameras, and the rest?

It seems to me that the collection of data is the easy part. The big job is the processing of the data into something usable. 

To do that, you first have to know what your goal is, and how the data will help you reach it. Then you can perhaps process those data in such a way that they make sense.

The parking folks know what they need for parking; the water and power folks know what they need, as do the street, police, fire and trash departments. Who knows enough to pull all those data together and make sense from them?

I’m not saying it can’t be done. I just think this is where the focus needs to be.

Article contributed by:
John Van Horn
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