exploring the smart city revolution

smarty city revolution.jpg

by Scott Matus

Although we remain in the early stages, it is clear that a ‘Smart City’ revolution is sweeping the world. Technology driven solutions are being used to rethink and reshape the way that urban areas function. These solutions bring with them the promise of future cities that are more efficient with resources, more equitable for residents, and more resilient to climate events.

But like with any young revolution, there is still a lot to learn it terms of what works and what should be included. Urban agriculture, for example, despite its unique ability to ameliorate a multitude of issues plaguing urban areas, is often strangely left out of the Smart City discussion. So Agritecture sat down with Chelsea Collier, founder of Digi.City, to discuss the future of Smart Cities and how urban agriculture can be a part of the revolution.

Chelsea Collier, founder of the website  Digi.City .

Chelsea Collier, founder of the website Digi.City.

In 2016, after a career pursuing varied interests, Chelsea found herself in a unique position upon receiving an Eisenhower Fellowship. She decided to use the fellowship as an opportunity to look deeper into Smart Cities, and research a life-long interest about how people are working together with new ideas to solve some of modern society’s greatest challenges. “Something that I find particularly cool about Smart Cities is that it’s a relatively level playing field,” said Chelsea. “It doesn’t matter how large a city is - at its heart, the Smart City revolution is about people and communities breaking down silos and collaborating.”

Since receiving the fellowship, Chelsea has been traveling all over the globe - including to China, Manchester, Barcelona, Singapore, as well as around the US - studying how different cities are advancing Smart City initiatives. She created Digi.City as a platform to showcase her findings, and continually updates it to share her recent experiences.

Through her travels, Chelsea has learned that it’s easy to slap technology onto a pole, or install a sensor on a street light (what she calls “city bling”). But these technologies alone don’t make a city “smart”. “The truly radical evolution is a combination of the four different levels of what makes the Smart City,” said Chelsea. This includes the device level, management level, network level, and what she views as most important: the infrastructure level, which includes the fiber networks and energy grids that enable connected technology.

To succeed at each of these four levels, it “takes a city that knows how to work together and set a long term vision,” according to Chelsea. Different public and private sector actors need to be able to work together over time, which for cities is often a very real challenge. The cities who are unable to form these partnerships, and instead simply "slap the ornaments on the Christmas tree,” are not doing the real work of transforming into a competitive Smart City.

Urban farming has grown rapidly over the past decade, and has the potential to impact cities in a number of positive ways, such as by providing green infrastructure, food security, and economic opportunity. It can also help correct the deep inefficiencies in our food systems, and provide cities with a measure of resilience to events that impact food prices and availability. But at the same time, urban agriculture is frequently left out of the Smart City conversation.

To Chelsea, this is a big mistake, and likely because the Smart City focus is currently extremely technical. For Chelsea, “the Smart City is about improving the human experience. And how, where, and why we feed ourselves is deeply ingrained in our experience.” If one of the ultimate goals is to have healthy cities with better health outcomes across communities, then urban farming must be an integral part of the Smart City conversation.

Brooklyn Grange's Navy Yard Farm in New York City.

Brooklyn Grange's Navy Yard Farm in New York City.

One of the major next steps is integrating more smart technology with urban agriculture, which could greatly increase the efficiency of all types of urban farms. This is starting to happen already, but Chelsea believes that the process could be improved. “Lots of solutions-oriented technology people are rushing quickly into this space and learning very expensive lessons,” said Chelsea. “Unfortunately this sometimes results in many folks just backing away entirely.”

She doesn’t claim to have the answers to this problem yet, but Chelsea believes that this is an important conversion that needs to be had more often. “Communities benefit  when it is easier for people to innovate, which could mean greater access to capital and other resources,” she added.

When it comes to moving Smart Cities and urban agriculture forward in the US, city governments and policymakers have an enormous role to play. But as she’s seen in her research, this doesn’t always happen. “It takes a certain willingness to come into a room and say ‘I don't know’, and then to start asking questions and learning together,” says Chelsea.

“It's not about passing a specific bill, it's about rethinking how we do things and planning for the long-term.” In her experience, places like Singapore and the Netherlands have done a great job with this kind of thinking, in large part because limited resources have forced them to innovate. In the US, our historic abundance has put us in a position where it’s hard to feel the urgency that would help propel this change forward.

For Chelsea, the future of cities in 10 to 20 years will tell a story of successes and failures. “We'll have a cluster of cities who get it, and a cluster of cities left behind like the towns that never connected to the interstate highway system.”

The Smart Cities revolution is a part of what some refer to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, following the automation and electronic revolution of the late 1960’s. Like with all the technological revolutions before, the winners will be the ones who embrace the change and use it for their benefit. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the cool kid in the group of cities right now,” says Chelsea. The cities and communities that work together across sectors and silos will be the ones who prosper after the Smart City revolution. 

Want to further explore the connections between Smart Cities and urban agriculture innovation? Come join us at  AgLanta 2018, on March 27-28. The dynamic 2-day conference will bring together a diverse group of professionals to explore the ways smart urban agriculture can make cities more efficient, resilient and sustainable. Use code DIGICITY for 20% off regular admission price.