How Does a Smart City Become a Genius Community?

Gentlemen (and Ladies), Stop Your Engines.

How can municipalities move beyond the title of ‘Smart City’ to being a ‘Genius Community’? Here in Austin, it could be something as simple as turning off the car engines. With the daily conversation revolving around mobility and affordability, I have been advocating for the solution that equitably addresses both issues and activates the local economy: turn off the automobile engines and turn on the community wealth engines.

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Last October I had the chance to participate in a community meeting addressing mobility. Participants came from a wide range of government, corporate and institutional organizations. However, local neighborhood advocates were noticeably missing, likely due to the fact that the meeting was held during work hours on a weekday. Additionally, the location had extremely limited parking which created a financial barrier to participating in the meeting since downtown parking is costly.

I was not there in any official capacity, I had been invited by a friend who knew that I would ask the questions that hadn’t yet been part of the conversation. As others stood and shared their thoughts on the missing pieces of the mobility puzzle, I kept waiting to hear someone speak to my concerns. By an accident of seating, I was the last person to speak and had heard no reference to the two points I was there to make:

  1. Move people off the roads and onto the technology ‘superhighway’

  2. Create solutions that are physically and fiscally accessible to all residents

Both suggestions were completely logical to me, but seemed to be new considerations to many of those in attendance. There were head nods all around and the questions became part of the discussions for the remainder of the meeting. I had dispatched my duty as an inclusion activist to deliver the message.

Fast forward to June 9, 2016 when Austin Mayor Steve Adler made his pitch to the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge competition for $40 million to help [the winning city] define what it means to be a “Smart City “and become the country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network. While the Mayor’s response certainly fulfilled those ‘Smart City’ requirements, it left out the most important element of a Genius Community: solutions co-created with those at the greatest risk from reduced mobility issues. This is not surprising, and all too common, when governments, corporations and institutional organizations seek to solve problems from the top-down perspective.

What would move Austin and the other cities vying for the $40 million grant from being a ‘Smart City’ to becoming a ‘Genius Community’? A commitment to co-creating solutions with the community affected by these issues on a daily basis. There are ways to revitalize the economy by reducing the resources that folks were forced to spend on transportation and, instead, keep that capital in their own community. In other words, move from a model that requires you to ‘spend to survive’ to one that allows you to ‘invest to thrive’.

The technology exists to build these community economic engines and there is plenty of grassroots-level fuel. Now we just need the political will to flip the switch and have them roar to life.