Smart Cities New York 2019: Thoughts and Takeaways

Exhibits and people at the Smart Cities Conference 2019

Smart Cities New York took place between May 13-15, 2019 at Cornell Tech and Pier 36 in NYC. Our CEO Tara Pham spoke on a panel at the conference, and the Numina team attended some conference workshops to boot! Here are some thoughts and takeaways from SCNY ’19.

Workshop: Urban Tech vs. Smart Cities: Which Comes First?

The workshops at Cornell Tech provided an opportunity for conference attendees from around the world to converse and debate on the pressing issues on all of our minds. At the Urban Tech vs. Smart Cities: Which Comes First? workshop, presenters Alexander Shermansong and Arnaud Sahuguet raised the question of what these terms really mean, particularly for different audiences from technologists and investors to city officials and citizens.

The consensus was that the “smart city” term’s buzzword popularity and investment landscape hasn’t fully translated to results and impact on the ground. Another point of dialogue was the existence of different models of the smart city, with each relying on different kinds of technological tools, processes, and guiding principles to define what their unique definition of “smart” is. A representative from the city of Vienna shared her team’s definition of smart city as one that “puts the best technology to work to create the best quality of life and reduce use of resources.”

Presentation showing graph at the Smart Cities Conference 2019

Technologists and city officials alike stressed this point: think of technology as a set of tools, not the singular solution. The discussion led to an intriguing question posed by Sahuguet: does a “smart city” solution require technology? As a technologist, this conversation broadened my perspective on how cities, and not industries, were defining their “smart” visions for the future and the role of tech in this process.

I’m looking forward to seeing the impact of conversations like this one, that bring a mix of public/private, tech/government representatives into the same room to converse about how to work together for a solution for all. The conversation also brought up an important next step: How can citizens also be a part of this conversation? Perhaps this could be an area in which tech is well positioned to support cities, by connecting conversations and raising citizen engagement in the digital space.

Workshop: Cities, Sensors and Spatial Computing

We also attended a workshop called “Cities, Sensors, and Spatial Computing,” moderated by our Navy Yard neighbors RLab. Considering that Numina builds sensors, deploys them in cities, and then performs spatial computing on the data gathered by the sensors, this workshop was definitely up our alley. The first half of the workshop was a presentation centered around how new-age interface technologies, such as augmented reality (AR) and virtuality reality (VR), could enhance the urban experience moving forward. More specifically, AR and VR could impact the future of cities in three major domains:

  1. Visualization: Could planners better design and model the urban environment?
  2. Interacting: How will new interfaces affect communication and collaboration in cities?
  3. Instructing and Guiding: Maintenance and inspection of the built environment?
Design Thinking exercise at the Smart Cities Conference 2019

With examples of these themes getting our creative juices flowing, the workshop launched into a design thinking exercise. Our group worked on the problem of how the manager of a large infrastructure project in Brooklyn could better handle the needs of many stakeholders (including the community) and communicate the status of the project. After some engaging empathy mapping, brainstorming, clustering and visualization, we came up with a web tool that could be scrubbed over time and display the progress and impacts of the projects at any given time.

While much of the discussion strayed from the initial title of the workshop, I still found this workshop extremely engaging and informative. In particular, the design thinking exercise got me excited to brainstorm new ways to approach the spatial data I work with at Numina, such as adding more intuitive temporal context to the spatial data on our dashboard.

Panel: The Circular City and the Promise of Circular Data

We were thrilled to learn with our talented peers and the broader urban tech community, especially at Tara’s panel. She spoke alongside other participants in the Circular City program, an experimental program designed in partnership with Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, New Lab, researchers from Cornell Tech, Columbia, and NYU’s GovLab, and three civic tech startups including Numina. The panel was moderated by Shaina Horowitz, Director of New Lab’s Urban Tech Hub, and featured

  • Jessie Lazarus, Head of Mobility Business Development, Carmera
  • Regina Myer, President, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership
  • Our very own Tara Pham, CEO & co-founder, Numina, and
  • Andre Correa d’Almeida, founder, Applied Research for Change.

Each panelist brought to bear their experience with the Circular City program. Ms. Myer, the program’s primary customer, called it a success, and expressed enthusiasm for continuing Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s collaborations with the participant companies. Dr. Correa d’Almeida described how the program was able to validate a new partnership model between public, private, and research entities centered around collecting data with carefully selected technologies to solve a specific set of operational problems. Ms. Lazarus gave an account of the value that the program created for Carmera’s efforts to create high-resolution maps for autonomous vehicles that might operate in a near-future Downtown Brooklyn.

Tara Pham on a panel at the Smart Cities Conference 2019

For her part, Tara explained some of the key findings our team derived from the Circular City program, each of which are demonstrative of the value that Numina’s data can deliver across City agencies and private enterprises. In one example, Numina observed that when scaffolding was present on either curb along the Fulton Mall, pedestrians were 53% more likely to step into the roadbed, producing actionable insight for Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the Department of Transportation, and real estate companies operating in the area.

Reflections

We were honored to be part of the Smart Cities Conference. For the engineers on our team, it was interesting to get a different perspective on the tech we build. For the whole team, the conference was a valuable opportunity to cross pollinate ideas with urban planners and technologists. We hope to be involved with SCNY in 2020 and beyond!