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Smart Communities are the Heart of the Smart City Machine

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Recently, a who's who of technology and infrastructure firms came together to form the Smart Cities Council, an organization aimed at helping city leaders develop comprehensive plans and best practices for deploying smart city technologies. These powerhouses, including GE, IBM, and Microsoft, share the goal of creating smart cities based on updated infrastructure and real time information analytics to deliver better services to citizens. A finely-tuned urban machine like this still needs a heart to survive, and that heart will be the many communities of individuals that make up our cities. The key to developing truly smart cities lies in connecting these small pockets of people as efficiently as we do our water, energy, and transportation systems.

So, what exactly are 'Smart Cities'? The answer will be revealed in the coming years, but for now the term describes using advances in information technologies to create highly efficient use of resources for utility, transportation, safety, and the other systems that keep a city running. Turning cities into high-functioning machines is inevitable and important, but let's be careful not to let the human element get lost in the goal for hyper-efficiency.

Humans are social animals with an inherent need to connect. Not only for companionship but for collaboration, learning, and for safety and security within a larger group. If we think about city residents as a resource like utilities, isn't it just as important to build a highly-efficient network of connected individuals within every city? Social apps provide an opportunity to build smart communities by pulling together citizens based on location and interests, and harnessing the power of the collective group.

These social-local-mobile apps (creatively named SoLoMo) have been generating a lot of buzz lately, but what exactly are they, and how will they change daily life within your city? SoLoMo refers to mobile-first apps that innately leverage a user's GPS location to deliver contextual information, often within a social network environment. The simplest example is a check-in platform like Foursquare. But the smart cities of the future will be formed by applications that go well beyond location check-ins... to introduce neighbors, classmates, and co-workers, and actually knit the social threads of a community together through its citizens.

These are services like BuzzMob, a free mobile app that connects people within the same geographical location to meet and join relevant social networks for the communities that unite them. BuzzMob is bringing together neighbors, businesses, sports fans at stadiums, classmates, parents and teachers at our kids' schools, and other important personal communities. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, BuzzMob doesn't focus on 'friends' or 'followers', but rather the members of the different communities that comprise your 'real life', would-be-strangers with whom you're more connected than you realize. Members of a BuzzMob community can have conversations; share tips, photos, and media; and receive exclusive content within a real-time social network on their smartphones.

Another example is NextDoor, a web-based platform that allows neighbors to talk online socially and about the community. Neighbors are using NextDoor to: warn others about break-ins; find a trustworthy babysitter, a reliable painter, or a lost dog; or organize a neighborhood watch group. With the mission to "bring back a sense of community to the neighborhood, one of the most important communities in each of our lives", NextDoor is focusing on keeping neighborhoods safe, sharing goods and recommendations, and building stronger neighborhoods overall. The platform recently released a mobile version on iPhone.

YouTown is a great example of a platform focusing on empowering local government agencies to keep citizens informed and involved with their community. YouTown has developed a mobile and web product which they customize for government clients to create a plug-and-play app. The idea is to allow cities, counties, and government agencies to connect with their citizens. The app includes helpful tools like maps for parks, public restrooms, street closures, and libraries. Also, the latest news, police updates, local cultural events, sports, and maybe even the mayor's twitter feed.

Other apps are making our cities smarter by focusing on transportation and creating more efficient, frictionless ways to get around. SideCar is a mobile app that matches people looking for rides with others nearby who are willing to drive them. While the most obvious benefits of SideCar are the convenience and energy efficiency of carpooling, the service is proving to be a social connector as well. With extensive background checks and validation on all drivers, ride-seekers have confidence they're jumping in with a friendly person, who might even turn into a friend. Another transportation technology called ParkNow is providing a simple way to conduct parking transactions. The smartphone app allows users to make mobile payments for parking, allows EV drivers to pay for charging sessions, and even sends reminder texts to users when their meters or permits are nearing expiration.

Skeptics of these advancements feel that smart city technologies detract from the soul of the urban living experience and attempt to tame an otherwise wild and wonderfully hectic environment. In opposition of algorithmic city refinement, Boston Globe writer, Courtney Humphries asserts, "In a city where everything can be sensed, measured, analyzed, and controlled, we risk losing the overlooked benefits of inconvenience." Additionally, some are concerned that app-based services by cities and communities will exclude segments of the population based on socioeconomic factors. Both critiques raise a fair question to ask ourselves, whether the efficiencies afforded by some new technologies oppose the very reasons we choose to live in cities...the broad spectrum of people we find on the streets, and the unknown, unplanned experiences we find around each new corner or at the next subway stop.

While the charming quirks of a city can lie in its inefficiencies and randomness, the people are what create and comprise its culture. Enabling more engaged, efficient connections between those people will only amplify the culture and community of cities. There will always be those who can't afford, or choose to forego the newest technology, but that shouldn't prevent us from moving forward for the greater good of our citizens and the next generation.

Cities are getting 'smarter,' and we probably couldn't stop them if we tried. LCD screens tell us how many spaces are available in our parking structures, the lady on the speaker gives spot-on updates of the inbound trains arrival time, and now smartphone apps are connecting us with our neighbors, our classmates, and our ride to work from a perfect stranger. Technology will continue to change the way we live within a city, and will hopefully restore a sense of community along the way.