“…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln

When Abraham Lincoln spoke about the relationship between people and their government, he most probably could not have envisioned the way technology would evolve such that those words ring truer than ever today.  The involvement of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring might come to mind most quickly as an example of people using technology to affect change in government.  In class we focused on another side of this relationship: government using technology to engage citizens in affecting change.

Smart Participation: Today many people have more access at lower cost to government decisions and the ability to provide feedback before decisions are finalized.  This plethora of information is prompting new methods for data visualization so that citizens can develop a better understanding of their cities and government.  Moreover, tools for increased communication are fostering dialog and community building.  Examples of technology increasing participation can be seen in newspapers that publish in blog format to reduce cost and expand readership.  Citizens can now help map their cities and enjoy locative media.

Crowd-Sourced CitySeeClickFix is a good example of civic engagement towards a crowd-sourced city where all citizens can improve their city.  SeeClickFix is a technology with a focus on transparency, collaboration, and efficiency that lets citizens report issues in their community via platforms such as the web, sms, mobile apps, and Facebook.  Founded in New Haven, CT, SeeClickFix is now used by 70 city governments. SeeClickFix tries to address three groups: citizens, government, and media.  One potential pitfall with SeeClickFix is that there can be equal weighting as seen by the user between reports of very different severity, e.g., illegal dumping vs. an illegal yard sale.  Another concern is that while governments have access to the collective data that citizens gather, the data often is not very accessible to citizens themselves.

Engagement: Citizens who take the time to report even minor issues and see them fixed are likely to get more engaged in their local communities. It’s called a self-reinforcing loop. This also makes people happy and everyone benefits from that.” –SeeClickFix

Participatory budgeting: Brazil has been at the forefront of participatory budgeting (PB) since the 1990s.  In class we specifically examined PB in the city of Belo Horizonte.  In 2006, Belo Horizonte engaged citizens in PB allocating  $11.25 million for nine of 36 potential projects.  The role of technology was unique in this exercise: before this, citizens had to participate in town halls.  For this project, citizens could participate electronically by using kiosks around the city.  This resulted in 173,000 citizens voting:  10% of the electorate and seven times more than the number of participants in the offline PB process.

Based on the success of the 2006 project, Belo Horizonte conducted an expanded version in 2008 where it used PB to allocate $22.2M for one of 5 projects focused on traffic congestion.  Citizens were engaged through videos, mapping, a website and a phone service that included an automated call from the mayor.  In this case 124,000 citizens voted.  Researchers examined citizens’ dialog on bulletin boards and noted that there was little interaction between comments.  Overall, they found that discussions with little control can generate good results.

[participatory budgeting] has been associated with desirable outcomes, such as reduced tax delinquency, increased transparency and the improved and more innovative delivery of public services
Prof. Dr. Enrique Peruzzotti

An interesting consideration in participatory budgeting is the relationship between elected officials, professional urban planners, and citizens.  Public officials and professional planners provide the citizens with a limited menu of options.  This allows the professionals to focus development where it is needed most, such as in transportation, while allowing citizens to participate in selecting the specific project.
Additional examples of smart governance include:

BAVC Map Your World from Grainger-Monsen Newnham on Vimeo.


Among the many ends towards which new technologies can be deployed, improved energy efficiency is among the most pressing and holds almost universal appeal. Technologies that help us reduce consumption of limited fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions are crucial for curbing climate change, but they also hold the potential to reduce economic costs for users and open up new markets for innovation in renewables and complementary appliances.

Smart grids will be essential for facilitating the integration of renewable energy sources and battery or storage technologies, and will enable the reduction of energy consumption through improved efficiency (e.g. by remotely shutting off unused appliances) and demand management (e.g. by increasing the price of energy at peak hours to reduce demand and avoid the costly process of turning on extra power generation facilities). As Andy summarizes below, the primary challenge facing smart grid implementation is the high front-end costs and a lack of cooperation across sectors (should utility companies, government, or users pay?) and scales (what are the roles of local, state, and federal authorities?).

A few points from this week’s presentation that I found particularly interesting:

Uncertainties in regulation and technology: A major barrier to implementing smart grid technologies is persistent uncertainty regarding how a new network will be regulated and how emerging technologies will affect the market. While the latter is unpredictable and will have to be accommodated over time, regulation is something that public authorities can and must address if smart grids are to be constructed.

The private sector and regulation: Utilities companies are usually publicly owned and operated, or else highly regulated. Smart grids will enable more diverse capabilities for integrated renewable energy. Renewables, however, are largely produced and distributed by private entities. How will these be regulated? Current regulation was designed for the existing system and has already proved insufficient for the more complex network of energy generation and distribution that integrates new energy sources and intermediaries. In developing a new regulatory framework, it will be crucial to find ways to incentivize private investment, but it will also be important to pay careful attention to how a larger network of providers and a more flexible system of provision will affect costs for users.

Piecemeal implementation: Utilities infrastructure was largely developed piecemeal, with most investment managed at the municipal scale. This means that each locality has its own system, often developed without regard to compatibility with neighboring jurisdictions. This poses major problems. European countries, for instance, ostensibly share an energy system, but each country has a separate grid. The lack of cross-border connections means that energy can’t be moved around to achieve the most efficient allocation. With inadequate energy storage capacity, if energy can’t be moved to the site of demand, it is lost (wasted). In light of these concerns about compatibility and distribution, are municipalities the wrong entities to be spearheading the transition to smart grids? These concerns must be weighed against other priorities: local control over utilities, government accountability, and diverse regional interests, needs, and preferences. What is the most appropriate scale for planning, implementing, and (re)regulating utilities?

Consumer preferences and complementary markets: While consumers have expressed interest in smart grids and complementary technologies, there remain a lot of “so what” questions that haven’t been sufficiently addressed. Google and Microsoft recently left this market, failing to see how they could benefit at this stage of consumer awareness. As demand will be necessary to drive smart grid implementation, we must consider how consumer interest can be encouraged. The presenters noted that markets for complementary products are growing relatively fast, and suggested that if these can be effectively differentiated from competitors, it will be possible to drive smart grid interest through increased uptake of compatible products. But there is much work to be done in consumer education in order to build the support necessary to justify the high upfront cost of smart grid implementation.

Energy storage and complementary technologies: Energy storage and flexible distribution remain some of the most important areas for technological and market development. Electric vehicles have the potential to act as a distributed system for storing excess energy, but the size of the market remains to be seen. Enabling flexible two-way energy distribution, such as allowing residents to sell the renewable energy they generate back to the grid, also has the potential to reduce energy losses and increase the market share of renewable energy sources. The benefits of the smart grid can be vastly improved by stimulating demand for complementary technologies and improving storage and transmission capabilities.


Developing a smarter energy grid offers tremendous opportunities and benefits. As presented during class, energy resources can be generated and transmitted more intelligently and efficiently, such as routing those resources to where they are needed most. Consumers and businesses can better understand how they use energy in their everyday activities.Variable pricing models can shape users’ energy consumption, particularly during peak load times during extreme weather. Grid operators will have access to improved intelligence for detecting, preventing, and recovering grid failures.

To date smart grid efforts have encountered numerous challenges, often focusing on cost. As presented in the Boulder, Colorado case study – who will pay for converting the existing grid? Consumers, energy providers, utilities, and government agencies agree that a smart grid is beneficial for all, however it is unclear who will bear the financial burden. Should those who benefit most pay a larger share? Should all consumers pay an equal amount, or should those who use more energy pay a larger share? Often these conversion costs are foisted onto consumers, who often have few energy provider choices given existing federal regulations. Utilities are regulated regarding the specific rates they may charge, limiting their ability to generate additional revenue  for needed conversion costs. These challenges highlight the complex power dynamics between users, providers, utilities, and the government.

Towards the end of the presentation Monday we briefly discussed the privacy implications of smart grid technologies. As posed in class, a utility could remotely turn off your air conditioner during peak usage. Or see which appliances you own. Perhaps utilities could limit when you could wash and dry your clothes, watch television, or use a blow dryer. While such control is likely far off, it raises question of whose energy could be controlled. Would it be all users, or could some users pay to use energy whenever they choose? Could such measures adversely affect low-income users, who may not be able to afford the latest energy efficient appliances? We must foster conversations among users, providers, utilities, and the government to resolve these questions.

Throughout the presentations this semester we should stay mindful of such privacy impacts. For smart transit, what are the privacy implications of gathering and using individuals’ data to plan and route buses, trains, and traffic? For smart governance, how might gathering such data from marginalized communities impact the perception of those communities? Does smart (grid|transportation|governance|etc.) data accurately reflect individuals and their activities? If not, what can we do to ensure that it does?

Do planners need to be aware of contemporary privacy laws and regulations?^ If so, how do we integrate this topic  into curriculum?

^ I have some experience in this space, and would be happy to present a half-class later this semester. – Andy

To follow the theme of Smart Cities, the topic of Smart Mobility is the intersection of information and communication technology (ICT) with transportation systems. The common name for Smart Mobility in transportation circles is Intelligent Transportation Systems or ITS.

On February 6, we generally discussed Smart Mobility but emphasized on one local application of ITS: San Francisco’s SFPark program.  For most ITS applications, the focus so far is on safety, efficiency, and performance.

However, many of these applications are already familiar and we don’t even consider them “smart.”  The next wave of ITS might include performance-based metrics and data analytics that weren’t available over the past 100 years.  More widespread sensors and digital connectivity will allow two-way communication and higher degrees of automated management.

SFPark itself is an integrated parking and congestion management system.  Drivers circling from parking are a major source of congestion and emissions in SF, and the program aims to make parking availability more transparent.  A system of sensors in parking spaces helps produce a real-time map of parking availability downtown, so drivers know where they are likely to find parking.  This new system of sensors also allows for dynamic pricing of parking spaces – a tool that can provide cities with a new way of managing curbside congestion.   By pricing the parking space based on demand (an application of economic theory), the prices can trigger parking behavior that leaves at least one space open at any time.  The accompanying new meters also let people seamlessly pay by cell phone or credit card, and prices are adjusted every 4-6 weeks to manage demand.

We also discussed some of the implementation challenges of the program.  The discussion of the system was quite rich, and here are some of the biggest insights that emerged.

  • Technology is not the only piece of smart mobility – institutions, unions, personnel, etc. are major factors in how the technology gets integrated into the system.  For public uses, these are often the most formidable.
  • To implement these systems, you need an immense project management system because it’s a complicated system of vendors.
  • Major security and privacy barriers to fully utilizing data.  Currently, most data can only be used at aggregate level, and data ownership is a huge issue.  In addition, resources are needed to run high-level analytics on the growing database.
  • It’s unclear how to make SFPark financially sustainable.  Currently, it is fueled by grants as a pilot project, but full cost recovery hasn’t been figured out.  After SFPark, initial data suggests that revenues from citations have gone down, while revenues from parking itself have gone up.
  • The sensor and meter system has to be flawless, due to public scrutiny and accountability, and there are technical issues in power, protection, and interference that require a lot of resources to address.

Smart economy is the intersection between the economy and Smart Cities.  This is a very broad definition but we roughly broke it into three different components: how Smart Cities technologies are changing urban commerce, the Smart City as an economic driver, and the economics behind Smart Cities.

Changing Urban Commerce

The Smart City platform creates new ways to reach and engage customers.  Below are some examples we discussed.

  • The virtual supermarket  in a South Korea subway is a good example of how information and communication technology (ICT) changes customers’ interactions with goods.  The enabling technology is the QR code. Each image of a good has an associated QR code that when scanned by a cell phone, will allow the customer to purchase the good and have the good delivered to their home.
  • Near Field Communication (NFC) is a technology that will enable payment through smart phones, which opens opportunities for dynamic pricing, finely tiered pricing, and micropayments, among others.  NFC technology differs from QR code technology because NFC is two-way communication and QR is one-way communication.
  • Companies have also experimented with augmented reality (AR) advertising and customer engagement. AR opens up a completely new arena for advertising that does not require physical installments.

A first-cut overview of the enabling technologies and where the technology influences urban commerce is displayed below.  The circles represent the relative influence of the technology (the rows) under each of the arenas for influencing consumer behavior (the columns).

The Smart City as an Economic Driver

The realization of the Smart City requires extensive infrastructure. To provide bandwidth, this infrastructure is supplied with a combination of fiber optic cables and copper cables.  To borrow a metaphor from transportation networks, fiber optic cables are the highways that carry the majority of traffic (information) over the longest distances and at the highest speeds.  The copper cables branch off of the highways to form arterials that carry less of the traffic to more locations. Transportation infrastructure is viewed as an economic driver, is there a similar metaphor for information and communication technology?

The influence of bandwidth on the economy can be measured in two ways: the first looks at the economic impact of broadband penetration, i.e. the proportion of the population with access to broadband; the second metric looks at broadband speed, usually represented as an average download speed for the area of study.

A report from June 2011 by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, a commission of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and UNESCO, explains the connection between increased bandwidth penetration and economic development. The report defines broadband as “combined provision of voice, data and video at the same time.” The report cites other studies that have linked investment into broadband infrastructure with a growth in jobs along with an increase in a country’s GDP. Besides purely economic growth, increased broadband penetration can also contribute to the proliferation of “Knowledge Societies.” According to the report, these are societies that exhibit “freedom of expression, universal access to information and knowledge, respect for cultural and linguistic diversity, and quality education for all.”

At the international scale, broadband penetration is the key issue.  In a country like the United States that already has high penetration rates, broadband speed has become the central concern.  Why does the United States rank 26th for average broadband speed, falling behind not only acknowledged leaders like South Korea and Sweden, but also the likes of Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova, Taiwan, and Belgium? Perhaps geographic issues contribute (we are a large country with a diverse geography), but invariables aside, the major factor is a lack of competitive incentives within the monopolistic ISP market and thus resistance to invest in the infrastructure.

This has been a major barrier to innovation and expansion, but Google is launching an initiative to disrupt these industry dynamics.  Back in 2010, Google announced a community fiber program that will provide a new kind of fiber network to residents of Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri.  The new fiber network will be fast, with plans to reach (1 GB/sec), and it will run along the fiber arterials from the fiber highway (backbone) directly to your home.  Without the copper portion of the connection, the new network will be much faster. The idea behind the program is to put pressure on the ISP market leaders to invest in network capacity rather than putting caps on data usage by introducing more competition and making transparent the real costs of ICT infrastructure construction.  Who better to address this problem than a company that stands to benefit significantly from increased internet-based activity?

The Economics behind Smart Cities

Deciding where to invest in ICT infrastructure is quickly becoming a global issue. To put things in perspective, Google is providing lightning fast internet in Kansas City while large portions of Sub-Saharan Africa lack any kind of broadband coverage.  A report produced for the World Bank from 2008 identified three types of ICT “gaps” in Sub-Saharan Africa:

  • Efficient market gap: residents could afford ICT infrastructure but there is no provider;
  • Sustainable coverage gap: residents could afford the required infrastructure but could not afford the service;
  • Universal coverage gap: residents could afford neither the service nor the infrastructure.

According to the report, covering all of the market gaps would cost approximately $7.5 billion. To cover just the efficient market gap, however, would only cost around $3.5 billion, but would increase penetration of broadband coverage by 40%, for a total coverage of 95% (up from the existing coverage rate of 55%). The remaining gaps represent only 5% of the population, but covering this last 5% would cost another $4 billion.

The non-linear relationship between cost and number of people affected conforms to the Pareto principle: a dollar spent in providing the first 20% of broadband coverage is much more powerful than a dollar in providing access for the last 20% of the population without coverage. This raises another point for investment in broadband speeds in the United States: when we already have residents with access to relatively fast broadband, is it worth the investment to increase broadband speeds further? If broadband penetration is the goal, how can the market incentivize companies like Google and the major telecom companies to invest in increasing penetration in areas of the country and the world that have not been considered “profitable”?

Technological innovation offers the promise of more intelligent, sustainable, equitable and dynamic cities. New technologies and data-processing capabilities will allow us to tackle some of the oldest and most intractable problems of planning and building cities. Governments, citizens, and the private sector offer innovative solutions for issues of governance, resource consumption, and access to services. In this course, we adopt a broad understanding of “smart cities,” as cities in which investments traditional and communication infrastructure, as well as human and social capital, drive sustainable economic development and improve quality of life.

This course aims to:

  • Explore various intersections of cities and technology
  • Discuss the role of planners, engineers, designers and others in smart cities
  • Provide a launching pad for smart cities initiatives across the UC Berkeley campus

The presentations and other materials generated in the course will be provided here to be shared with the UC Berkeley community as well as practitioners and researchers interested in the emerging intersections of urbanism and technology.