What makes a “smart city” smart?

Posted on Posted in Teaching Moments

“If you forget about the people, you miss what it is to be smart,” said David Graham, the Deputy Chief Operating Office for the City of San Diego.  I watched a story about San Diego becoming a model smart city.  He has been instrumental in the vision and strategy of using technology to enhance the lives of all of the people who live in that city.

Mr. Graham spoke about his work with passion and purpose.  He focused his comments on the positive work and goals.  He met the negative with more affirming words for the momentum to make San Diego a smart city.  He did not waiver in his commitment to improving his city.  He defended his renewed his work while differentiating it from other technological powerhouses that profit greatly from data collected from consumers with or without the knowledge of the consumer or user.  He noted that the aim of his work was not anchored in an expectation of personal gain, but in creating a more accessible city for everyone in San Diego.

As I watched the segment, I began to think about my work.  I thought about how his words could apply to so many things unrelated to smart cities.  More specifically I wondered, how fantastic it would be for everyone to use their abilities and opportunities in service for others.  I think people forget that if they do anything that improves their environment it gets better for them too.   The converse was also true: If you stink up the place where you are, it stinks for you too.  If both those statements are true (or can be true), why not make it better for everyone?  I recalled telling my children that there are three types of people at any job: the one that just does what is required, the one who does less than is required, and the one who goes beyond the expectations for the job.  I reminded them that they always got to choose how their performance would be categorized.  In general, I made this statement when we ranked our customer service experiences.  I knew that in the business world, satisfied customers returned or promoted the business to friends.  Unhappy customers frequented the business less or avoided the business altogether.  So, again I ask, “Why not just use your powers for good and make the place better for everyone?”

Mr. Graham’s steadfast commitment to improving the lives of others inspired me.  I was inspired to rethink how my work can reach beyond the walls of my office to impact positively each person in the campus community.  I have been the subject of a journalism strategies class on campus and I asked the students how their ideas to help me gain more exposure through social media would reach the ten percent of students who were not as engaged in the community as the top ten percent of engaged students.  I wanted to know how I could be certain that my work was extending beyond the expected circle to find the students who believed they had no resources and no person on campus to hear their needs.

I appreciated Mr. Graham considering ways that technology would best serve the underserved constituents.  His objectives to give to those constituents a safer community with access to sustainable resources.  My virtual seat in the presence of this visionary offered a very real benefit for me.  I weighed the self-reported data collected to inform campus programming and services against the times I felt hijacked by a data collection team.  In my opinion, Mr. Graham was right that sharing my personal information felt better when I agreed to share information for the purpose of making my life better.  He was also right that I was skeptical and more guarded after learning that my preferences and tendencies were tracked and appropriated for the benefit of a company or unrelated entity to gain wealth.

The challenge for each of us this week is to determine if we are using our abilities and capacity for betterment of a person or community outside of our immediate circles.  If you find that your work or actions influence others, examine the methods you use to confirm that your work has the influence you believe it has on the community.  If you use surveys or some other form of data collection, think deeply about whether anything in your operation changed because of the data.  Ask yourself if anyone would agree with you that your work resulted in the betterment of the community.  Ask yourself if you intended to make the community better for everyone or if that was happenstance.

Sometimes we work hard and forget that our work should be about other people we serve.  When the segment featuring David Graham ended, I played it back a few times and took some notes.  I like to believe that I always consider the students in my decision making.  I always want to know if the data dictates a change in my actions to keep me from being stagnant and unproductive.  Self-awareness about the resources in the community and your use of the same is imperative in coming anywhere close to the mindset of Mr. Graham.  I know he was not talking about students or a college campus, but this principle of never forgetting the people we serve encompasses more than smart cities.  I believe that our communities, our country, and the global community improve when we all relentlessly work to use our unique gifts and talents for the good of others.


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