Technological innovation is accelerating faster and faster each day. The Internet of Things (IoT) and distributed data management are on a crash course with virtually every industry. From energy and farming, to overnight shipping and healthcare, we can expect 22 billion IoT devices in operation by 2025.
Why would public works and municipal infrastructure be any different?
A forcing of the hand: Embracing new technology
The progression of technology is inescapable, but it is also embraceable. Those who do not embrace it are left scrambling– just ask Blockbuster. Just as every department and office of public works now has an email address and a web page, they will soon have IoT throughout their operations. However, there’s another disruptive force that will drive cities to become smart: Anthropogenic Climate Change.
Before the Storm: Preparing for the impacts of climate change
I’m not a doomsday prepper, but you can’t argue with data. The looming impacts of climate change on cities themselves and on the supply chains they rely on will be fraught with hardship. In order to weather the storm, cities, especially coastal ones like New Bedford, will have to engineer their own resilience in the most efficient and smartest ways possible. This will entail climate proofing infrastructure, improving mobility logistics, and providing localized security of food, water, energy, and construction materials. Proactivity is key. We do not want to be left wishing we had prepared before the storm occurred.
A Fork in the Road: What will smart New Bedford look like?
So innovation and climate change will drive cities to become smart, just as it will industrial supply chains and agriculture. But what does a world of smart cities look like? What would a smart New Bedford look like? How will this transition happen? Who will “upgrade” our New Bedford? Who will “run” New Bedford’s logistics and infrastructure? And most importantly, how will they be held accountable?
We are at a fork in the road as we transition our systems and infrastructure. There are two potential paths we can choose, and each will send us toward a very different reality:
Path #1: A Feudal Technocracy
Path 1 is simple: New Bedford employs Silicon Valley to upgrade their infrastructure and logistics. The behemoths of Silicon Valley manage our city, our municipal data, and in return get our state & local taxes along with government contracts. Given the recent news on how these monopolistic entities handle our data, and how they’ve let it be used against us, do we really want to let them be in charge of herding our traffic, aggregating our renewable energy, or assessing how best to respond to natural disasters?
Path #2: From the Ground Up
Path 2 is a little more complicated, and a whole lot more collaborative. New Bedford can turn the necessity to engineer smart-resilience into an opportunity for home-grown economic development. By drafting our own smart-city initiative, the city could decide to only utilize tech developed by companies based locally. This will allow the smart city to be homegrown by native startups rather than the giants of Silicon Valley.
With New Bedford only using technology developed locally, startups are incentivized to base themselves here because they will have guaranteed public contracts while they grow their private business. This 21st century “localized mercantilism” allows the city’s infrastructure to become more efficient, sustainable and resilient while bringing economic development and technological innovation to the SouthCoast.
This will eventually bring down the costs of public works by using green and efficiency technologies to eliminate the waste or misallocation of resources while making the city run more smoothly overall. Mobility would be increased with smart traffic lights and cameras that are able to communicate with each other allowing the most efficient herding of traffic.
Collaborative Opportunities for New Bedford
New Bedford should sponsor technical innovations that are applied to the existing industries of the city and its surrounding region, like fishing, small-scale farming and art.
Startups could receive certain tax benefits along with the guaranteed contracts to attract business. However, there should be conditions for these startups. They could be required to store a percentage of their capital in local credit unions or be required to allot interns from and work closely with post-graduate career services of Bristol Community College, UMass Dartmouth, and Bridgewater State. They could also be required to host introductory internships or work studies for students from the local high schools, Voc or Diman. This would entice New Bedford’s best & brightest to stay and contribute to the local economy rather than moving to California.
The city could establish a Tech & Governance committee to act as a liaison between the tech sector and city hall. This governance committee would be made up of stakeholders from the different sub-industries within the tech sector, the local industries and businesses adopting the tech, and representatives from city hall. It would cut through red tape and foster friendly and transparent relations between the city government and the technologists/entrepreneurs upgrading the city.
This governance committee would create an interdependency in the decision making processes between the public and private sectors democratizing the impact of the technological development. Allowing the public can voice concerns directly to the public sector members of the committee who would then address the concerns directly to the private sector members at the meetings.
The Smart City-State
In order to most effectively mitigate the consequences of climate change, The SouthCoast should become self-reliant in terms of energy, food, water and construction materials.
This can be done through distributed renewable energy, indoor farming, atmospheric water generation, and industrial hemp. By developing these industries locally, New Bedford will depend on its own population for both their basic needs and their day-to-day operations. This self reliance would make it far more resilient in the face of climate change and its impacts on global supply chains while democratizing control over their logistics and data, preventing it from being manipulated and exploited by massive tech monopolies. We could even go as far as to develop our own cryptocurrencies allowing commerce to also become independent from complications in fiat currency and from Wall Street’s antics (It’s a whole new world!).
We need to become self-sufficient and resilient in the face of ecological and geopolitical deterioration, able to continue daily life relatively unscathed from the missteps of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, or D.C.
By proactively engaging in initiatives like this, New Bedford could become a leader of the 22nd century. An era which will not be marked by globalization, but re-localization. A time of increasingly autonomous smart city-states dotting an unfamiliar map of new coastlines, climates, and the waning influence of increasingly irrelevant centralized institutions. New Bedford has a history of being an industrial powerhouse, so why not do it again? This time we can lead the world in the smart-resilience industry, fostering real innovation to solve real problems.
For more blog posts regarding New Bedford’s infrastructure, check out Steven Froias’s look at New Bedford’s Route 18.