Read before you come : Boston’s smart city playbook

When it comes to smart cities, Boston is one of the most advanced municipalities. Not in terms of megaprojects, ultra-efficient technologies or global platforms — but for its approach to innovation.

As a multi-billion dollars market, “smart city” sometimes sounds like a new gold rush for entrepreneurs, iOT firms, consultancies, etc. Maturity and discernment from public actors are thus essential — in order to identify which solutions really answer one territory’s specific needs.

Boston has a tradition of cooperating with innovators — it is one of the early partners of Waze for example (Connected Citizen program). But the city is now inundated with requests from tech companies, research labs and startups, eager to sell them technological and ready-made solutions with a “smart city” label on them.

That is where the Smart City Playbook comes into play. This witty online guide is a model for other cities that would like to provide entrepreneurs and private actors a first specification, before they actually contact them.

Summary of the Boston Smart City Playbook

The City of Boston asks very simple, but highly effective (and differentiating) questions to project managers : “who have you spoken to in Boston before speaking to us? what idea of government is implicit in your product ?” It also tackles (sometimes with humor) important issues such as the resilience of complex systems (how is your product being made “future-proof” and inter-operable with other technologies and standards?) and privacy and re-use of the data (“how do you deal with the issue of PII and how do your policies comply with existing best practices?”).

We met with Jacqueline Lender (Mayor’s Office) and Stephen Walter (Program Director at Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanic) to learn more about the City’s strategy.

What were the initial objectives of the Smart City Playbook and how did you elaborate it ?

The Playbook, written and designed by the office of New Urban Mechanics[1], is a set of expectations regarding how we would like to interact with outside vendors. We’re bullish about the potential of being a Smart City, but want to be deliberate in how we go about implementing and advocating for new technologies.

The chapters of the Smart City playbook reflect the ideas that surfaced frequently during discussions with vendors. It is not clear what value many of their technology platforms would bring to us. We want to move beyond technology for technology’s sake, and create systems that solve real problems for real people in the real world.

While the Playbook is a relatively new piece of literature, members of City Hall and the New Urban Mechanics have been thinking about these topics for years and the Playbook is an articulation of that institutional knowledge.

What are the impacts of this Playbook on your activity ? What are the next steps ?

The Playbook is a helpful guide to send out to vendors as it details how we think about partnerships. It was an instrumental piece of the RFI for “Smart City Technologies” as it set the tone for our in person meetings.

The City of Boston is excited to work with vendors, entrepreneurs, and university researchers to explore new projects that generate civic value for our residents. Our “Smart City Technologies RFI” in January was the first step in putting the values of the Playbook into action. We will be pursuing pilot projects with our partners, creating new Playbook chapters as we learn, writing some technical guidelines for potential partners, and creating a central hub for Smart City work on our City’s website.

Furthermore, the Boston Smart City Playbook has acted as an anchor for a variety of research and development projects for the City. These include the Local Sense Lab, which is a loose consortium of sensor technologists and data scientists working to uncover uses of sensors that add actionable value to city planners and policy makers.

Founding members include Bitsence, an urban sensing startup; Supernormal, a data-drive design firm; and Categorical Infomatics, an experimental data management firm.

After an initial year of experiments, the Local Sense Lab is evolving into a new pilot the City is launching called Beta Blocks. This is a research experiment looking into how the City can “open source” its streets — that is, make it easier for researchers, startups, and community groups to utilize City assets (such as light poles, street furniture, and parks) to test technologies that produce real civic value for Boston residents.

© Dale Cruse — View from South Boston (Flickr)

[1] The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics was formed in 2010 as one of the first municipal innovation offices in the world. They explore, experiment, and evaluate civic innovation projects across departments and throughout the city.