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Port Covington in Baltimore, Lake Nona in Orlando, Hudson Yards in New York, and Quayside in Toronto are all examples of neighborhoods being developed, or redeveloped, from the ground up to support the future of urban mobility, connectivity, and livability.

The emergence of these forward-thinking neighborhoods represents the next evolution of smart city design and user experience. To build a smart city, you have to start with smart neighborhoods, according to David Gilford, senior director, client strategy at Intersection.

Affiliated with Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs urban innovation group, Intersection develops smart city technologies and digital strategy plans for neighborhoods such as those mentioned above.

“The smart city label often evokes a vertical, top-down concept proposed by a government in partnership with various corporate interests, and with a central dashboard to control everything,” says Gilford. “But when you look at what’s actually happening in terms of moving the needle, it’s about how we empower individual people and organizations at the neighborhood and community level. It’s really about trying to understand how people use urban spaces from one block to the next.”

In 2018, the two most well-known innovation conferences in the U.S. launched tracks dedicated to smart cities for the first time. The CES Smart Cities Marketplace in Las Vegas and South by Southwest (SXSW) Cities Summit in Austin suggest that public awareness around the value propositions for more connected, data-driven, resilient, and inclusive urban environments is moving into the mainstream.

The reality of delivering on that at a city-wide level, however, is still very much in the baby steps development stage.

Today, tech companies such as Alphabet, Siemens, Cisco, Dell, Amazon, Microsoft, Deloitte, Panasonic, and IBM are collaborating with cities to build central dashboards pulling data from many disparate systems to manage daily urban operations more efficiently. That encompasses an endless array of cloud-based technologies leveraging Internet of Things infrastructure, relating to everything from autonomous vehicles to resource management to emergency services.

It’s a massive proposition to integrate all of those effectively across an entire city. Neighborhoods, meanwhile, provide a smaller scale to design and develop smart city prototypes more cohesively.

For example, Panasonic and the City of Denver are developing the Peña Station NEXT community near Denver International Airport, built atop “a smart resource grid with redundant and clean energy and a robust fiber backbone.” The 382-acre, transit-oriented development is integrating the same systems used in Panasonic’s Fujisawa Smart Sustainable Town in Japan.

In Canada, Sidewalk Labs, Intersection and the City of Toronto are co-creating the new 800-acre Sidewalk Toronto district, beginning with the waterfront Quayside development.

Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, posted on Reddit: “We are designing a district in Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront to tackle the challenges of urban growth, working in partnership with the tri-government agency Waterfront Toronto and the local community. This joint venture, called Sidewalk Toronto, will blend people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.”

Furthermore, urban neighborhoods and districts are more approachable for integrating smart platforms beyond considerations of just cost and logistics.

One, you don’t have to fuss with numerous stratified municipalities and their varying regulations to get things done. Two, it’s much easier to engage a specific community as a distinct focus group to continually test new innovations, source feedback, and reintegrate updated processes.

“There’s no cities without neighborhoods, but at the same time, each neighborhood should contribute to the city as a whole,” says Gilford. “Our mission is to figure out how technology and the built environment support the needs of citizens in local communities, now and in the future.”

Disney and Carnival Cruise Tech

To date, one of the most advanced examples of a fully connected, data-driven urban ecosystem is Disney. The company’s theme parks are showcases for technologically-enhanced UX anchored around the Disney MagicBand. It was the first wearable to scale and deliver personalized audience engagement successfully in a live, yet controlled, public environment.

Building on that in 2018, a few of Carnival’s upscale Princess cruise ships are presently rolling out the brand’s new Ocean Medallion guest-centricity platform in phases. Created by the same people who developed Disney’s model, the new onboard IoT infrastructure connects everyone (who opts in) to everything. The wearable medallion represents the future of personalized, on-demand, end-to-end customer journeys orchestrated to increase brand loyalty and lifetime customer value.

The hundreds of new video screens placed throughout the Princess ships, for example, recognize the individual party facing them. The devices can then pull up the appropriate personal itinerary and recommend activities during open time slots that align with a specific customer’s travel preference data. That’s just one scenario. Anyone interested in the future of customer experience should watch Carnival CEO Arnold Donald’s keynote at CES 2017.

Meaning, the most advanced smart ecosystems today, which will eventually inform the future of urban society and how we ostensibly live together more effectively, are being developed by land and ocean-going theme parks.

“The places we look for examples of new technology in real-world environments, although they tend to be fairly closed systems, are cruise ships and Disney,” says Gilford. “They do an excellent job of understanding where people are and what they’re likely to be doing, in a very subtle way. It’s relatively unprecedented where that’s happening on a city scale yet, but the technologies are available because of the work these other environments have done.”

That said, while the Disney and Carnival models are closed platforms, neighborhoods require open-source technologies to encourage greater community engagement and development.

“A city needs to be responsive to full-time residents versus tourists in a theme park for a few days,” Gilford says. “So that means a more open platform where an owner can’t completely control the only technologies that live there. From a city perspective, you want set standards and frameworks as much as possible, but you also have to provide ways for other companies and entrepreneurs to build on top of the platform.”

Next Generation Urban Connectivity Platforms

So how does the Disney/Carnival platform translate in a neighborhood like South Bronx?

One example moving in that direction is Intersection’s LinkNYC program, replacing every phone booth in New York’s five boroughs with public Wi-Fi kiosks to provide broadband access to every neighborhood. To date, there are 1,440 kiosks operating, with a total of 7,500 planned, subsidized by advertising displayed in large digital screens on both sides of the 12-foot-high metal slabs.

Beyond just Wi-Fi needs, people are also making an average of 200,000 phone calls per month from the kiosks’ tablet interface, as well as accessing different types of city and neighborhood information directly from the screens. Moving forward, Intersection is expanding the Link platform to London, Leeds and Philadelphia, with more cities presently in contract development.

“We were initially surprised how much the kiosks are being used for making phone calls, and we know a large portion of those are visitors, so that has an impact from a travel perspective,” says Gilford. “We’re also seeing high usage in neighborhoods like South Bronx that has one of the lower broadband penetration rates in the city…. People are also connecting to a Link outside a coffee shop, for instance, if it’s faster than the coffee shop Wi-Fi.”

Last December, the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth published new research — “Measuring the Economic Impact of Smart City Innovations” — suggesting that both LinkNYC and CityBike are driving incremental economic growth in neighborhoods where they’re active. Mastercard compared restaurant and retail sales in seven Brooklyn neighborhoods prior to LinkNYC installation and six months after.

According to the report, noting that causality can only be assumed: “Within six months after a free Wi-Fi kiosk was installed, retailers in the immediate area saw an overall bump in sales of two to three percent.”

Also, Intersection just launched its new IxNConnect city transit initiative in Chicago this month with the first of 400 planned video screens now operating at train stations and bus terminals. According to Intersection: “IxNConnect is a new content platform that helps transit agencies better communicate with their customers, enhance the rider experience, and maximize revenue with adjacent advertising.”

The IxNConnect ecosystem allows transit companies to customize messaging for each screen to provide more timely and location-specific information to passengers, including special events in the neighborhood, nearby system disruptions, wayfinding and direction, and more targeted sponsor messages.

“There’s a dashboard interface for transit authorities to be able to monitor, control and push messages in stations depending on the neighborhood,” Gilford explains. “The information is more context-sensitive and aware of any mobility issues in real time, such as a baseball game in the area or other congestion issues, which can then be used to provide advice on alternate routes.”

From Place to Platform

The above urban tech platforms are just a small sample of emerging innovations, of course, that will further propel the conversation shift around cities from place to platform. CES and SXSW this year highlighted the spectrum of companies investing in technologies with an urban tech application.

At SXSW, Bose launched its new audio AR glasses to help people navigate and engage environments in new ways, bridging the physical and virtual worlds.

Also, the new Swarm AI platform won the AI and Machine Learning category in the SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards. Swarm AI “provides the interfaces and algorithms to enable ‘human swarms’ to converge online, combining the knowledge, wisdom, insights, and intuitions of diverse groups into a single emergent intelligence.”

So how does the ability to use machine learning in a neighborhood to “optimize options,” as Swarm AI proposes, potentially deliver better, data-driven community planning and decision-making processes and platforms?

Or, how could Swarm be paired with Niantic AR technology used in Pokemon Go to create a physical/digital knowledge share ecosystem specific to an individual neighborhood?

“That’s the big question about how we bring these concepts to life,” says Gilford. “How can we use information to better communicate via mobile or digital signage? How do we get the right message to the right person at the right time? That all requires a mix of thinking about how we develop the future of messaging, which includes advertising, in cities to be more contextual. It’s about supporting the messages that cities are trying to get out into the public realm.”

More and more municipal governments are developing online public forums to accomplish that with open-data and crowdsourcing platforms. Boulder, Colorado just launched its Be Heard Boulder platform this month, featuring a variety of interactive tools including discussion forums, polls, surveys and crowdsource mapping to collect citizen input and data to inform future urban development.

Last year, Austin rolled out a similar platform with Speak Up Austin. The City of Austin is using the portal to gather community feedback on specific neighborhood projects, such as the Seaholm Waterfront.

Traditionally, cities have been defined by place, both geographical and socio-political. How we interpret place informs the specific identity and purpose of our urban centers. Today, however, the definition of place is evolving as a social construct for greater participatory self-determination with connectivity vehicles like those in Boulder and Austin, further driving the evolution from place to platform.

Designing the Smart Neighborhood

The next step toward designing and developing a smart neighborhood requires bundling all of these disparate types of technologies and many others into an interoperable ecosystem, and aligning that with the physical design of an individual neighborhood.

Interoperability is key, which means, ideally, that every system needs to be aware of what the others are doing in real-time, and be able to adapt to changing information as necessary without human intervention.

The challenge is knowing what a smart neighborhood will require in terms of connectivity design and UX in 10 to 20 years. In Manhattan, for example, the World Trade Center Complex in Manhattan and the Hudson Yards neighborhood — the most expensive private development ever in the U.S. — were first conceived before the launch of Facebook and the iPhone.

Therefore, neighborhoods today need to be developed as flexible spaces with the ability to evolve in line with new tech innovations. Whereas in the past, “Governments and urban planners were used to building a user interface for the physical world,” explains Max Oglesbee, head of client strategy, Intersection Technology.

“We need to run conduit, not cables, so we can adapt systems more easily without ripping up streets and tearing down walls,” Oglesbee adds. “With buildings, you’re investing in them maybe every one, two or three decades. In contrast, visitors and locals in New York change technologies, often with no friction and at zero cost, almost every day.”

That makes it difficult to design buildings today, which in five years, for example, might require drone delivery portals on each floor, or landing pads for autonomous flying cars, or VR-enabled community, meeting and game-ified spaces.

“So what we’re trying to do at Intersection is build integrations between building systems and consumer technology,” says Oglesbee. “That way, neighborhoods are a platform upon which the developer can build systems for local residents and visitors that are scalable and adaptable.”

The new 235-acre, post-industrial Port Covington development in Baltimore embraces that philosophy. Like many other inner urban areas across America, Port Covington was cut off from its neighboring communities by an interstate highway system built in the mid-1900s. Eventually, the neighborhood fell into decline, even though it has 2.5 miles of prime waterfront.

Now, the Sagamore Development Company, with investors including Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, is stewarding the redevelopment of the district into a smart neighborhood, anchored by Under Armour’s new headquarters. Intersection is working with Sagamore to translate Under Armour’s mission of connected fitness into connected urban living, much like the Equinox fitness company is attempting to do in Hudson Yards.

According to Intersection’s Connected Communities Practice, which helped inform the Port Covington Digital Master Plan: “For the first time, real estate owners and operators have the opportunity to deliver seamless, coordinated experiences across complex physical environments… by connecting physical and digital assets to maximize partnerships, assets and revenue.”

To deliver on that, Intersection focuses on five themes: ubiquitous connectivity, coordinated transportation, accessible recreation, dynamic wayfinding, and intelligent occupancy.

“The urban design and digital strategies focus on connecting Port Covington physically and virtually to the larger city,” explains Gilford. “It’s paramount that people, both locals and visitors, move freely between Port Covington and the rest of Baltimore.”

Mayors Get It

During the SXSW Cities Summit this year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors hosted the Civic I/O event in partnership with SXSW and Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Sessions focused on smart urban development, such as the Mayor’s Matchup: Tech Innovation Pitch Competition for startups working in urban tech. The top three finalists were Biobot Analytics, Citymart and Elucd.

More than 20 mayors participated in Civic I/O sessions like Agile Activism: Big Change Starts at City Hall and Primed for Amazon: Value & Cost of HQ2 for Cities.

During the former, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg discussed his city’s successful 1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days initiative to identify and address urban blight caused by abandoned homes. To kickstart the program, his office posted a running account online designed to show how many of the 1,000 homes had been upgraded or demolished during the 1,000-day timeline.

Buttigieg said the reason the initiative worked was because the city developed an online crowdsourcing portal, and it engaged the community as both a participating workforce and a watchdog group. By being transparent publicly, and opening a community dialogue, that put pressure on the city to perform.

“My team and I knew that if we didn’t make our goal, there was going to be a very visible, very public failure,” said Buttigieg. “It created a kind of vulnerability on our part, and propulsion to go the extra mile, and do things we hadn’t done before, and try novel things just to make it happen. So there are interesting ways you can publicize your goals, and publicize where you are.”

Big change does start at city hall, and many of the mayors at SXSW said they’re collaborating together more intentionally, on a global scale, to share best practices and case studies such as Mayor Buttigieg’s.

Many agreed that the catalyst behind that shift toward greater collaboration is the lack of any meaningful national commitment toward addressing the barrage of challenges facing cities today.

“At South by Southwest, thanks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors programming, you could really feel the presence of city leaders throughout the conference more so than ever before,” says Gilford. “In the absence of federal leadership, cities have taken things upon themselves to be the place where the rubber meets the road, and it’s in these innovative neighborhoods where you really see that happening.”

Further Reading

  1. The Power of ‘Networked Governance’ to Solve City Problems
  2. Building a City like a Smartphone
  3. These 6 Technologies Are Redefining the ‘Smart City’
  4. A Smarter Smart City
  5. New District in Toronto Will Tackle the Challenges of Urban Growth
  6. Augmented and Virtual Reality Beyond the 21st Century

The above content was produced by the branded content SkiftX team for the upcoming Skift Cities platform, defining how cities are connecting visitors and locals to co-create the future of urban UX.

Photo Credit: Rendering of Port Covington, Baltimore. Sagamore Development Company