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The Promise of a Smart Community

By Ms. Alyssa Rodriguez P.E., PTOE posted 10-31-2021 10:40 PM

The pandemic paused many smart city and smart community programs, and recent restarts have a new focus—delivering on resident services, experience, inclusion, and equity. Early efforts in smart communities were solution driven: a sensor was installed in search of a problem to solve, or data were collected in anticipation of organically generating new insights. However, technology only helps if it measures what is important and prompts action. The action only creates efficiencies if it can be automated and prevent tedious repetition. Once the tedium is removed, there is more room for innovation. The pandemic reset allows time to focus on the promise of a smart community, rather than technology for technology’s sake.

A community can be defined fairly simply, “it’s just a group of people…There’s always a shared identity if you get broad enough…The question is whether or not the shared  identity is meaningful to them,” David Spinks wrote in a January 2018 article on Medium, “The Definition of Community.” Meaning is developed through a narrower and generated  through shared interests and goals. When it comes to transportation, more finely defined groups are endless, but—as an example—may include people who live in the community, people who maintain the community, people who invest in the community, and people who direct the funding for communities. A truly smart technology serves these  communities and facilitates purpose and meaning.

At a recent Missouri Valley District ITE meeting, I attended several excellent presentations on placemaking and the development of meaning in public spaces. Imagine a technological application that could identify right of way spaces that experience the most physical intersections within the neighborhood. An automated review of history within the records of the community could reveal several possible common experiences and triumphs to be celebrated within the space. An outreach system could utilize proxy measures and non-invasive, privacy-controlled methods for gathering input from everyone. The amount of interaction and activity within the space could be mapped and shared with the business community or a targeted group based on the needs of the residents to encourage development. Automated alerts for maintenance crews could tailor work orders to quickly identify issues and address them to keep the shared space beautify and operational. Lastly, the changes over time can be monitored automatically to prove the value in placemaking and encourage decision makers to continue investment. While this is all theory, that is the promise of a truly smart community.

Curiously, connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) could create an artificial community bond on the roadways. In his book Why We Drive the Way We Do, Tom Vanderbilt discusses how humans have not evolved to communicate at high speeds. As a result, we assign behavior and motivation to other drivers without truly understanding their intentions. His prime example is the efficient zipper merge; some interpret the late merge as aggressive. However, “the seemingly selfish strategy keeps traffic moving for all,” (“Tom Vanderbilt’s Why We Drive the Way We Do Unlocks How to Unclog Traffic.” Wired, Josh McHugh, July 21, 2008). CAVs communicate and/or sense each other’s actual intention to fulfill the driving community’s goals: safety and efficiency. As transportation professionals, we must work together to ensure that we create meaningful connections in these emergent smart communities as technology continues to advance.

This is the President's Message from the November issue of ITE Journal.