We need more Mad Scientists in our Smart Cities

Credit: US Army TRADOC G-2 Mad Scientist Initiative

Last week, Grace Simrall, Chief of Civic Innovation for Louisville Metro, and I attended the US Army TRADOC Mad Scientist Conference at Georgia Tech Research Institute. The conference is part of a series of innovation events hosted by the US Army at research institutions across the country. Organizers challenge status quo thinking by bringing in outside practitioners, forward thinking vendors, and research institutions to present to high-ranking officers and staff. Each event aims to stretch the thinking of Army leadership about the future of different sectors of Army operations.

The Mad Scientist formula brings together world-class research, futurist visioning through fiction contests, and cutting edge real-world projects into one room with decision makers.This week, they set their sights on the “Installations of the Future” and asked presenters to paint the picture of Army installations in 2050. Grace, our Chief of Civic Innovation, presented at a different event in the series last year and got the return invite to present on our Mayor’s Bloomberg Challenge Application that proposes to integrate Autonomous Drones with our Shotspotter Deployment.

Compared to other conferences, it did not provide as many best practices or lessons learned to bring right back into our organization, but it did push my thinking to incorporate and even longer term view of how we need to build Louisville into a Smart City. As innovators, we need to always have a vision for the future with a plan to get there, but we can get caught in the quagmire of quick-win thinking necessary to get buy in for our innovation work. Quick wins are important, but we also need to make sure that we don’t lose our Mad Scientist side so we can keep moving our communities in the right direction for the year 2050, not just 2020. Specifically, I think incorporation of the fiction contest and futuristic videos was an interesting way to do visioning in a relatable way that avoids getting bogged down into the technical aspects of the Smart City of the future.

Talking with the Army about their Smart Installations of the future helped expand my thinking about Smart Cities. Installations share challenges with cities, but are not analogous organisms. The Army prioritizes different aspects of their communities because they are force projection platforms that must train soldiers for combat operations and be ready to send thousands of soldiers overseas quickly. And, they have an elevated security posture compared to your average city. We secure City Hall, but not like the Army secures an Ammo Depot. Seeing a different type of city allowed me to see our city in a different way, specifically about potential Smart City safety and security applications like counter-drone security for secure locations and events, especially after hearing this story.

The event also allowed me to see how the garrison commanders, with their decades of leadership experience, but limited city management training, take on the Smart Installation/City projects. They are unburdened by the local government status quo, so it is easy for them to see the problem with fresh eyes. I was particularly impressed with COL Cox’s, Garrison Commander of FT Benning, approach to taking on the Smart Installation. Inspired by Richard Kidd’s, the leader of the Mad Scientist program, call for Army to embrace Smart Installations, COL Cox began crowdsourcing the best Smart Installations ideas from his staff (civilian and military). He asked his staff to identify challenges and the ‘utopian’ technology solution to solve that challenge. Initially, he received over 200 potential Smart City user stories. And, over the next few months, his team will whittle the list down to the 20 before releasing it in September. His human centered approach echoed general sentiment from the group: the human aspect is the most important element of the Smart City. Everyone generally agreed that 2050 technology would be there technically, but they also agreed that a lot of organizational development and human centered design is required to get there. This is by no means a revelation to the Smart City community, but is outside validation we all need to focus on the human element as much as the technical one.

All told, I came away from the event thoroughly impressed with the US Army’s Mad Scientist approach and their first steps into the Smart Installation movement.

Local governments would be wise to adapt this Mad Scientist approach to our own work. And, here is how I think we can do that:

  • Use fiction or narratives to paint a picture of your ideal community in 2050. This will help your community (and organization) understand the changes that the digital revolution will have on our daily lives and physical environment.
  • We need more collaboration with researchers. Every city needs a strong relationship with a research institution. We need them to learn the art of the possible and they need us to help them take theory into practice.
  • Pay attention to the Smart Installation movement. The Army will build their smart communities differently than civilian communities, but there will be lots of opportunity for shared learning especially around safety and security. Also, I think they will be particularly important as testing grounds for new and innovative technologies.