3 Ways Cities Are Using Tech to Solve the Problems of Tomorrow

At the CityLab 2016 Conference held by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute, city officials were in the spotlight sharing their efforts to create a more livable space for residents.

by / October 26, 2016
Michael Bloomberg Screenshot taken from CityLab 2016

Always a vocal proponent for making cities smarter by adopting new technology, Bloomberg Philanthropies co-hosted the two-day CityLab 2016 conference from Oct. 24-25 in Miami, where world leaders from both public and private sectors gathered to discuss pressing global issues — and how technology can help to solve them. Strategies on combating Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases, and proactively using data and technology to avoid a Flint-esque water crisis were just a few high-profile topics on the agenda.

To kick things off, Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and former mayor of New York City, spoke about the incredible potential of autonomous vehicles (AV), the sharing economy and the role cities play in shaping the future.

“It makes sense for mayors to lead the way on these issues,” Bloomberg said, referencing the influx of AVs into urban landscapes. “Mayors are less weighted down by politics and ideology than the state and national governments. In the end, mayors are the ones held most directly accountable for people’s well-being.”

So how will urban centers lead technology adoption for years to come? Here are three areas in which cities are taking the first steps in creating a better environment for tech to flourish.

1. Treating Autonomous Vehicles as a Public Health Crisis

The impacts autonomous vehicles could have on cities are many and varied — but cities are truly driving the AV conversation (pun intended), regarding autonomous vehicles, said Seleta Reynolds, general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, who also warned that cities must start taking AV technology seriously immediately.

And the reason is clear: Traffic fatalities are seen as a public health crisis, according to Edward Humes, author of Door to Door, a book exploring the hidden costs of our transportation system. Humes said during the event that such fatalities attributed to more death than “the yearly war dead during each Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War of 1812 and the American Revolution.”

AV Acceleration

On day one of the conference, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute announced that the two will galvanize experts and data to accelerate 5 cities’ planning efforts for autonomous vehicles.

According to Michael Bloomberg, these cities are led by mayors “who understand the potential for autonomous vehicles to transform their cities.”

The five cities are:

  • Austin, Texas;
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina;
  • Los Angeles;
  • Paris; and
  • Nashville, Tenn.

These cities — along with five more that will be announced later this year — will work to produce a set of principles and tools for other cities to follow in creating self-driving vehicle policies.

“The advent of autonomous cars is one of the most exciting developments ever to happen to cities,” Bloomberg said. “If mayors collaborate with one another, and with partners in the private sector, they can improve people’s lives in ways we can only imagine today.”

Therefore, we can look at the adoption of AVs as similar to the introduction of other public safety measures, such as the seat belt, airbag or child car seats.

Reynolds noted that within five years, there may be a measure regulating some sort of communication between vehicles and infrastructure. New cars equipped with driverless technology are able to use sensors built into the vehicle, but older models may require a some sort of Bluetooth-enabled device.

And Reynolds said there are two major public policies to keep in mind when preparing for the future of mobility:

1. Keeping revenue streams steady despite the shrinking gas tax and expected loss of funds from traffic citations; and

2. The re-envisioning of public transportation. Private vehicle ownership is already decreasing in many urban centers, so if cities can get out in front of AV technology, a fully integrated transit system could feature shared vehicles.

2. ‘Making Infrastructure Sexy’

Can data and technology prevent another "Flint"? Karen Weaver, mayor of the Michigan city, was joined by Syracuse, N.Y., Mayor Stephanie Miner to discuss just that.

"I don't like to say, 'Use me,'” Weaver said, "but if you don’t use Flint as an example, then shame on you.”

Mayor Weaver described how the city was subjected to contaminated water poisoning its citizens as the perfect storm of regulatory failures.

Miner has taken Weaver's advice: Syracuse is working with Bloomberg Philanthropies to outfit underground water mains with sensors that can detect when a leak may occur and how severe a leak may be.

Even though infrastructure and its maintenance aren't typically issues that garner press coverage or goodwill from citizens, it's those small things that need to be kept up for long-term success, Miner said. “I like to say we made infrastructure sexy,” she added.

And even though the water crisis in Flint was a tragedy, Weaver used the situation to look for opportunities. While replacing water mains, for instance, city officials are looking at what else can be tackled at the same time. “Since we are going in and tearing up streets," Weaver said, "can we do broadband?”

3. Utilizing Smart Crowdsourcing

One of the growing crises during 2016 is the Zika virus. Legislatures have proven to be ineffectual at providing funding for states to combat the disease, so Beth Simone Noveck and her team at the GovLab decided to rethink their strategy.

The Zika virus has spread to more than 50 countries, and to effectively stop its spread, the most knowledgeable people must have open communication — which is exactly what the GovLab is trying to do. In a multinational effort dubbed "Smart Crowdsourcing," Noveck has teamed up with public health departments, waste management companies,  and representatives from Argentina, Panamá, Río de Janeiro and Colombia.

By essentially setting up an international conference call, experts from around the globe broke down the spread of Zika into 15 subcategories, one of which included standing water in which mosquitos easily breed.

Breaking down large issues is crucial to defining the problem, as is using experts to curate the relevant information to then collaborate on a tangible solution.

“Nobody has said no to participating," Noveck said, "and now we are seeing everyone saying, 'How can we continue to help?”

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.