Discrete projects designed to better understand citizens’ needs and engage them in solutions are a start. Ultimately, though, cities will need to think bigger and provide platforms that enable constituents to participate in creating their urban experience.
In the private sector, businesses are creating open platforms for their customers, who may contribute directly to design, production, or marketing of products and services – or merely agree to let companies use their data to formulate and deliver products and services for them. A platform business model creates value by supporting exchanges between two or more groups, typically producers and consumers. The platform provides a structure, standards, and protocols that enable a network of such interactions on a large scale. In the fitness realm, for example, companies provide platforms for developers to create apps that let users feel connected through data such as personal bests, crowdsourced routes, and “top of the heap” competitions. In some cases, customers may coalesce for action on their own, organizing into digital tribes to deliver solutions.
In the case of a city, advocates envision ecosystems in which citizens, businesses, university researchers, and others can co-innovate to solve urban problems. TM Forum, an association for telecommunications companies, describes the concept in its City as a Platform Manifesto as a “shared collaborative framework between residents, the public and private sector to drive the desired outcome of sustainability, inclusivity, and targeted innovation that benefits cities and their residents.” By adapting the principles of commercial platforms for the urban environment, cities can become innovation hubs, generating ideas for managing the challenges of urban life and improving its quality.
Tampere, Finland, for example, is building platforms around selected themes (currently, health and well-being, customer service, safety and security, and smart mobility) to create a foundation for companies, universities, and others to be able to experiment with digital solutions for the city and its residents. The platforms employ several co-creation approaches common in the private sector, including agile development and project management, hackathons, and an open innovation approach that has enabled companies, university researchers, and city leaders to co-define an IoT model for the future (see “Chicago streets as innovation labs”).
One platform offers a digital 3D-model of Tampere, based on open data, that can be freely accessed by businesses and residents and used to showcase ideas for city development, such as its new tramway or a planned lakeside district called Hiedanranta. “Each user may look up the developments relevant to their own neighborhood or place of work,” the city says. “This makes it easier for citizens to contribute to urban planning.” Tampere is also creating an IoT platform (built into its street-lighting network) that can be integrated with other sensors or apps, making it easier for companies and researchers to test out new projects or products.
Chicago streets as innovation labs
The city-as-a-platform approach can be used to tackle any number of urban issues in a more citizen-centric way. “There aren’t very many good places that you can go to try out a new and potentially crazy idea you want embed in the city infrastructure,” says Charlie Catlett, senior computer scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and a senior fellow at the University of Chicago Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. “As we interacted with the city regarding the challenges they face, it became clear that a flexible, programmable measurement capability would be critical.”
Enter Chicago’s Array of Things (AoT). Some have called the project, which Catlett leads, a fitness tracker for the city. Sensors gather data on light, air, surface temperature, vibration, barometric pressure, sound intensity, and – using AI deployed with the sensors – pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The network is envisioned not only as a tool to improve how the city pursues its urban planning and sustainability goals but also the quality of daily life for residents and communities.
“Five years out, if we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents and the way the city builds new services and policies,” says former Chicago CIO Brenna Berman when the first nodes (as the sensor units are called) went live in 2016. “It will be viewed as a utility – the same way we view our street lights and the way we view our buses. They are there for us and they help us get through the city more easily.”
The team behind the AoT shows the potential for broad collaboration. Researchers affiliated with Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago are developing the Waggle Platform (named for the dance honeybees do to communicate the location of food sources to members of their hive) with partners from dozens of universities around the world. They’re also receiving support from major technology industry players, such as Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Schneider Electric, and Motorola Solutions. The Chicago Department of Transportation is in charge of installing nodes onto light posts across the city and managing the data portal, which will make the AoT data available to the public. The Department of Innovation and Technology manages a data portal that integrates available AoT data with other Chicago data for use by the public.
Some of the first nodes were installed in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where asthma is more prevalent and a local health clinic is eager for more data. Private companies and nonprofits envision using the data to develop innovative applications, such as a mobile app that enables residents to track their exposure to certain air contaminants or navigate the city while avoiding neighborhoods with excessive congestion and noise or along routes with the most green spaces. In 2018, the project released an API for data access, along with tutorials and documentation, enabling developers to start using near-real-time data collected by the AoT in their applications. The city plans to integrate the data with other public data sets and make the interface more usable and accessible for a variety of audiences, from scientists to app developers to the general public.
Today more than 100 AoT nodes have been installed, with a plan to bring the total to 200 by the end of summer 2019. Project leaders have held meetings and workshops to build relationships with residents and identify community priorities, which vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Residents and community groups can also request nodes be installed in a specific place through the project website.