Why Our Cities Aren’t So Smart

You can acquire streetlights equipped with sensors that connect wirelessly to the cloud. They can monitor traffic, pollution, the weather, energy usage and more. They can have audio speakers with automated messages or digital signs. And give or take a few sensors these smart lightposts cost about $6,000 each. There are 250,000 street lights in New York City. How many do you think the city has the money to replace at $6,000 a pop. This is a place where they recently balanced the budget by cutting the funding for some 31,000 kids to go to summer camp. Who has the money to fit smart poles into this year’s budget?

streetlightThat in a nutshell explains why the vision of a smart city is still just that, a vision. Almost all of the operating budget for most cities is being spent on the day-to-day operation of the city, meeting the payroll, keeping the schools running, paying and equipping the police and the firemen, filling the biggest of the potholes, collecting the trash.

In the U.K., research by street lighting equipment manufacturer Lucy Zodion concluded there are five barriers to delivering smart city solutions (like the ones they provide). They are:

  • A lack of funding
  • A lack of internal prioritization
  • A lack of evidence or proof
  • Not enough collaboration
  • A general lack of confidence

The development of the smart city is largely in the hands of local, not state, provincial or federal government. So it is subject to various levels of less than optimum functioning, like different departments operating in silos, lack of centralized information systems and often obsolete equipment. I found one fairly large American city where the payroll is running on a 30-year old mainframe.

Most cities don’t have the level of management and technical expertise that is needed and that you find in private sector technology companies. They can’t do it themselves and the consultants and the technology firms that are pitching the smart city aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re not cheap.

The issue of prioritization also raises some pretty significant questions. The development of the smart city depends on what technology can do. And while we know there are some pretty substantial things that can be addressed and improved it doesn’t address the quality of education in the schools, poverty, drugs and crime and substandard housing. How do you prioritize things like identifying the best traffic route, finding available parking spots, or conserving energy when faced with these issues. The best case scenario might be to use technology to improve efficiency and lower costs so more funds are available to address these larger issues. Unfortunately at this point there is not a substantial enough body of evidence to show a return on investment at scale to justify some of the costs.

So while the promise of smart cities has been around 10-15 years and it offers a brighter vision of the urban future, it still is only proceeding in dribs and drabs. There is some federal government money available in the form of grants, some foundations are underwriting some projects and some corporate philanthropy can get some projects going. There is also what has been called the civic tech movement in which the citizenry actively engages through ideas and even entrepreneurship. But the larger vision isn’t likely to happen without larger funding.

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Disrupting the Campus: Innovation in Higher Education

Is the higher education system in the United States meeting the economic and societal needs of the country in the 21st century? The panelists at New America’s event “The Most Innovative People in Higher Education,” held last week in Washington, would probably say no.

Administration BuildingIt was generally agreed that the higher education system is not producing enough graduates. Those that do graduate might not be able to secure a job that enables them to pay down the debt that they have been left with. And they might not graduate with the skills they are going to need to be successful.

And there are more issues, according to this group, like:

  • There’s a lot of bad administration
  • First generation students, minority students and students from low-income families don’t get the help they need.
  • The funding model is unsustainable.
  • Most colleges operate according to tradition and are resistant to change.

One of the panelists, Bridget Burns of University Innovation Alliance, commented “Any ranking (of colleges) that is focusing on exclusivity is focusing on something that is the opposite of what America needs in the future.”

Georgia Tech professor Charles Isbell addressed the issue of exclusivity vs. accessibility in describing his school’s Online Masters in Computer Science degree program. The courses cost $6,600 for the full degree program, compared to about $42,000 for the on campus equivalent. 12,000 have applied for the program since 2013 and 55% have been accepted.  The on campus acceptance rate, according to Isbell, is 10%. That’s not because only 10% are qualified but because of the limits of the on-campus capacity.

By contrast Stanford accepted only 4% of its applicants. Isbell commented that the goal of the Georgia Tech program is to “accept anyone who can succeed.” The program also addresses the need for flexible mid-career training. The average age of the students is 35, 11 years older than the average age for the on-campus equivalent.

Text booksAmy Laitinen of New America discussed competency based education, schools that award degrees based upon what you know rather than how many credit hours you’ve accumulated. While the traditional approach of colleges is to treat students as if they all know the same thing, the competency based approach credits the student for what he or she already knows. Often done in conjunction with an employer, competency based programs are more flexible and more affordable, according to Laitinen. She cited Southern New Hampshire University as a good example of an institution offering this type of approach.

Burns is part of a group of colleges that have taken a collaborative approach to achieving their educational goals. The ten participating colleges includes Arizona State University, which she described as the most innovative school in the country, and others like Georgia State, Texas, Ohio State and Kansas. As a group they set a goal over the next ten years of awarding 68,000 more degrees than had been expected and of having half of those additional degrees awarded to students from low-income backgrounds. According the Burns, the Alliance is at this point exceeding those goals.

These examples, according to this group, provide evidence while it may have been a long time in coming, innovation is beginning to take hold in the world of higher education. But there is some catching up to do.

New America is a Washington based think tank focusing on public policy and technology. The innovation in higher education discussion can be viewed online here.

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Some Smart Things Some Cities Are Doing

The technology driven promise of the smart city is largely unfulfilled. But we are in a world of prototypes, beta tests and early adapters. And some of the things that some cities are doing are pretty impressive. Here are some examples:

Kansas City

Kansas City

Kansas City bills itself as the “world’s most connected smart city.” That’s because it has focused on getting all of its citizens online. There is free public WiFi downtown along the city’s streetcar line, which is also free. And for those who don’t have a smartphone or other device, they can stop into one of the 25 kiosks that have been installed in the downtown area and connect to the smart city network over which different services will be provided. They’ve also installed 125 smart streetlights that respond to activity, or lack thereof, and hence conserve energy. The city has a digital roadmap, the goals of which are to: improve the delivery of city services, enhance the resident experience, and support entrepreneurship and economic development.


Most of the discussion in this series of posts about smart cities is about how to make dumb old cities smart. Songdo tries to answer the question of what we would do if we started from scratch. Begun in 2005 and not yet completed, Songo has been built on 1500 acres of reclaimed land in South Korea. The city is 40% park space. Most of its residents commute on bicycles. It is a city of sensors, constantly monitoring the temperature, energy usage and traffic. All of its buildings have automated climate control. There are plots of land set aside for urban farming. Trash is collected through an underground pipeline system that connects all business and residential buildings. Seven employees manage trash collection for the whole city. Is this indeed the city of the future? Two writers from the Atlantic concluded “We had expected a city 25 or even 50 years ahead of the rest of the world; instead, Songdo felt like 2017—still the future, perhaps, but not the promised land of science fiction.” (Songdo, South Korea, City of the Future? )



Amsterdam launched its Smart City Initiative in 2009 with the goal of reducing traffic, improving public safety and conserving energy. One of the priorities of this initiative is to solicit and support ideas from its citizens. There is an annual Amsterdam Smart City Challenge that encourages residents to submit proposals for funding. One example of a citizen-conceived initiative is MobyPark, a peer-to-peer sharing platform for parking spaces. It enables owners of parking spaces to rent them out and the app meanwhile captures data about parking in the city. The Amsterdam initiative has launched 79 projects since its founding. One involved creating solar powered hot spots that enable people with laptops to work outdoors in open spaces. Test projects were launched with a variety of alternative energy sources, including wind farms, solar panels and fuel cells. A number of residents were equipped with smart grids and smart meters to encourage more efficient energy usage.

And a few of the more exotic implementations:

  • Smart Trash Cans – A South Korea based company, Ecube Labs, is testing its smart waste bins in two cities in Colombia. The bins monitor levels of trash and provide information as to when they need to be picked up. The company claims this can lower waste management costs by up to 80%. And, by the way, these smart trash receptacles are also WiFi hot spots.
  • Happiness Meter – A “live sentiment capture engine” is being implemented in Dubai. These devices are installed at government facilities like public transport hubs, police stations, courts and utility offices. It gives all visitors the ability to rate their “happiness” with these services. The analysis provides a “map of happiness” for different parts of the city.
  • Wirelessly charged buses – Wirelessly charged electric buses were put on the road in Milton Keynes in the UK in 2014. They had eight electric buses that ran a 15-mile route. They charge while in service through plates at both ends of the route.
  • Shotspotter – Implemented in New York City, Boston and several other cities, Shotspotter utilizes a network of audio sensors that are installed around the city to identify gunfire and to send information to the police as to the location of the gunfire.


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A Day at the Lake

Wawayanda Lake

Wawayanda Lake

Wawayanda (N.J.) State Park

Wawayanda Lake map

Lillies in the lake

Scot Island

Picnic grounds

Wawayanda Lake

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Will the Techies Save Our Cities?

Fifty percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that number will go to 60% in the next decade. Yet these growing cities the world over are often beset by issues like rotting transportation infrastructure, troubled policing, poor quality schools, pockets of poverty and water supply problems. For many of them you can make the case that they have already outgrown their ability to provide services and a clean, safe environment.

Silicon Valley, and other outposts of technology providers, believe they have the answer. Make our cities smart.

Tim Emerich imgaeThe Utopian vision for the smart city goes something along the lines of what Steven Poole describes in the Guardian: “A woman drives to the outskirts of the city and steps directly on to a train; her electric car then drives itself off to park and recharge. A man has a heart attack in the street; the emergency services send a drone equipped with a defibrillator to arrive crucial minutes before an ambulance can. A family of flying maintenance robots lives atop an apartment block – able to autonomously repair cracks or leaks and clear leaves from the gutters.”

The technologists vision of the smart city in a result of the shrinkage of computing combined with the enlargement of data. It potentially puts to use all of the buzzword technologies of the 21st century: sensors, drones, machine learning, big data, cloud computing, the internet of things, artificial intelligence. At its core is the proliferation of sensors, ultimately almost infinitesimally small, that can be installed everywhere, utility poles, cars, bikes, traffic lights, heating systems. The U.S.-based research firm Gartner estimated that by 2020 there will be 25 billion connected “things.” These sensors can capture various information and wirelessly transmit it to cloud computing systems where various forms of data analysis can supposedly tell us what to do about traffic, how to reduce energy usage, where to deploy our law enforcement resources or even when trash cans need to be emptied.

The promise of smart cities is not new. Yet I live in a relatively affluent urban corrider and I can say with some certainty that neither New York, Newark nor Philadelphia seem particularly smart. Is the smart city a realistic solution to the bevy of problems that potentially accompany urban growth? Or is it merely, in Poole’s words, “rhetoric that has, for the past decade or so, been promulgated most energetically by big technology, engineering and consulting companies.” According to Gartner, the technology market for local, state and federal governments will amount to $430 billion globally this year and will grow to $476 billion by 2020.  That’s some powerful incentive for tech companies big and small to enthusiastically make the smart city pitch.

Others, including some social scientists, have raised questions about whether the smart city is really someplace where we would want to live.  There’s the issue of privacy and surveillance. Not to mention the potential for always on, always with you marketing. And, as Boston Globe writer Courtney Humphries notes, “the more successful smart-city programs become, the more they risk diverting resources into the problems that can be solved with technology, rather than grappling with difficult issues that can’t be easily fixed with an app.”

In next week’s post, I’ll look at some smart things that some cities are doing.

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Labor Day in Paterson

The Great Falls

The Great Falls Festival

Great Falls National Historic Site

Paterson, N.J.

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams quote

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton Looks On

Uncle Floyd

Uncle Floyd

Paterson police

Off to watch Uncle Floyd?

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The Sun Sets on Another Jersey Shore Summer

Labor Day weekend is traditionally the last hurrah for beachgoers at the Jersey Shore. This year all eyes are on a potentially unwanted visitor. A tropical storm is threatening to park itself offshore and bring high winds, erosion and flooding to communities that in some cases have not yet fully recovered from Hurricane Sandy four years ago. This holiday weekend my thoughts are with the homeowners and businessowners on the coast. Fingers crossed you all get through unscathed.

I spent a good part of my summer at the Jersey Shore and loved every minute of it. Here are some of the reasons why.

Exit 102 — Asbury Park

Asbury Park Beach

Exit 63 — Long Beach Island

The bay

Liftig an LBI house

Exit 25  — Ocean City

Sunset Castaway Cove

Exit 13 — Avalon

Christmas in July


Exit 10 — Stone Harbor

Stone Harbor sandcastle

Vintage poster

Stone Harbor surfingBeach volleyball

Exit 4 — Wildwood

Boardwalk bargainsSunset Wildwood

Exit numbers are the exits on the Garden State Parkway that you would use to access each of these shore towns. The exit numbers run south to north starting at Exit 0 for Cape May. The numbers correspond to the mileposts on the parkway.




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Quebec City Museums

Monumental Staircase

Monumental Staircase, Pierre Lassonde Pavillion

Pierre Lassonde Pavillion. Musee National des Beaux-Arts

The Pierre Lassonde Pavillion opened in June. It hosted 100,000 visitors in its first six weeks. It is the fourth building of the Musee National des Beaux Arts. The Lasonde Pavillion, itself a work of art, is dedicated to contemporary pieces.

Musee de la Civilisation

Located in Old Quebec the Museum of Civilization offers exhibits focusing on the human experience, ranging from ancient civilization to modern socioeconomic movements. When I visited this summer there was major exhibit about cats and dogs. A very family-friendly museum with lots of hands-on attractions.

Musee de divilisation

Augustinian Monastery

This includes a museum, restaurant and hotel. All are dedicated to the values of the Augustinian sisters who founded a hospital on this site in the 17th century. Healthcare in the theme of the museum. the restaurant menu is based on healthy foods and the hotel is positioned as a place to retreat into comfort and simplicity.

Augustinian MonasteryAugustinian Monastary


Musee de la Place-Royale

Located on the Place-Royale where Quebec was founded by Samuel de Champlain. It’s exhibits cover the history of New France and of Place-Royale, the first French outpost in North America.

A Rebrousse-Temp

A Rebrousse-Temp, Giles Girard

Fortifications of Quebec

Quebec City’s defense system, dating back to the 17th century. The photos below are from the Fort de Saint-Louis. The fortifications also include the Citadel and Artillery Park.

The Ice House

The Ice House

Hearth and Oven

Hearth and Oven

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Summer in the City, Quebec

Chateau Frontenac

Chateau Frontenac

Art and Les Artistes

Dali sculpture

Salvador Dali, Alice au pays des merveilles

Street performers in Quebec

Street performers in QuebecStreet performers in Quebec

Cafe Boulangeries Pailliard

Mural on the wall of the Cafe Boulangerie Paillard

Place d’Armes

Terrasse Dufferin

On the St. Lawrence

Montmrency Falls

Montmorency Falls

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Quebec

Fireworks Over the St. Lawrence

Fireworks, Quebec City

And when winter comes…

Snow sllide Quebec City

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The Cradle of French Civilization in America


Place-Royale is known as the cradle of French civilization in America. Samuel de Champlain began building this first Quebec settlement in 1609 as a trading post. It is part of Old Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

View from Place Royale

Looking out at the St. Lawrence from Place-Royale

On Rue Notre-Dame


La Fresque des Quebecois

La Fresque des Quebecois tells the history of Quebec City. The mural includes historic figures as well as artists and writers. Finished in 1999, it covers 4,500 square feet on the side of the Soumande House on Notre-Dame Street.

La Fresque de Quebecois


Bassin Louise

Bassin Louise


The funicular bringing passengers down to Place-Royale from Terrasse Dufferin.


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