Boston Smart City Playbook — from the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics

The age of the “Smart City” is upon us!

It’s just that, we don’t really know what that means. Or, at least, not yet.

So far, many “Smart City” pilot projects that we’ve undertaken here in Boston have ended with a glossy presentation, and a collective shrug. Nobody’s really known what to do next, or how the technology and data might lead to new or improved services.

We want to change that. We address this playbook to the technology companies, scientists, researchers, journalists, and activists that make up the “Smart City” community. In return for heeding this advice, we commit that we, the City of Boston, will not sit in City Hall and complain about the lack of solutions to our problems. We promise to get out into the City, find ways to help you pilot new ideas, and be honest with our feedback.

Our goal is to create a City-wide strategy for the use of sensor technologies that is people-centered, problem-driven, and responsible.

We need your help to get there.

*This playbook is a living draft being developed by the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and is inspired by the US Digital Service’s Playbook. Please send us your thoughts for building it out further, and watch for new updates!


Stop sending sales people

We’ve got nothing against sales people. Many of us have sold things. But we’re getting calls every day from “IoT” vendors and we’re really tired of talking to your sales teams. We don’t even know why or how we’d use your product. You might think that your technology is ready for prime-time, but we’re not ready to buy it and put it up all over Boston. At some point, we’ll know what we need and we’ll need someone to talk to about dollars and cents, feature roadmaps, etc. Right now, in 2016, there are much bigger questions unanswered.

So send us someone who knows about cities, someone who wants to walk in the shoes of our City workers or talk to residents about what they love (and don’t love!) about Boston. Send us someone who’s looking for more than a 30-minute pitch or a relationship to manage. We’d love to have a relationship with you—but it needs to be a real one.

Key Questions

  • How does your product address the questions and concerns in this playbook?
  • Do you have examples–real ones, not marketing documents–of how your product has worked elsewhere? And examples of where and why it’s failed, too?
  • Can you differentiate your sales team by giving them access to content knowledge about cities?



Solve real problems for real people

This sounds like such a cliché. But we can’t help feeling like this keeps getting lost. We’re happy if you have a technology for us to use internally, something that’ll make a City department’s work easier. But we’d be even happier if you were solving problems for residents. Talk to people on the street, talk to local businesses, talk to artists, talk to architects and planners, talk to advocacy groups—and talk to them before you call us. Show us that you’ve met them, thought about their interaction with the City, and designed around their needs and experiences.

When we day-dream about Boston’s use of sensors, we imagine a city in which residents could check sensors out of the Boston Public Library, and use them to answer their own questions. That way, they’d only be used by real people to answer real questions or solve real problems. That sounds far-fetched, but it’s the kind of thing that we’re aspiring to.

Key Questions

  • Who have you spoken to in Boston before speaking to us?
  • Who would you like to speak to and how can we help make connections for you?
  • Is your product addressing an internal problem or a resident-facing one?
  • How do you know that “the problem” you’re addressing really is a problem? What evidence do you have?



Don’t worship efficiency

We live in a world—and in a city—of finite resources and infinite need. Spending taxpayers’ money as efficiently as possible is critical to making government work. At the same time, focusing on “efficiency” assumes that we’ve already figured out what services to deliver to residents, and now just have to make it all cheaper. That’s unfortunately not the case.

As a city, we’re continually examining what services we could deliver to residents and how we might fit into their lives. It’s why we built the Boston 311 application; why we undertook a year-long research and design process for the new website; and why we launched the “Where’s My Bus” application for parents of Boston public school students. We could go on. We’re really, really proud to be at the cutting edge of civic technology and civic innovation here in Boston. But we’re at that cutting edge because we’re continually re-thinking what government means to people, not just trying to make it cheaper.

So help us out. Be creative. Tell us about how we can make government more beautiful, more delightful, more emotionally resonant, more thoughtful, and more pleasurable to interact with—not just cheaper.

Key Questions

  • What idea of government is implicit in your product?
  • How do you think residents’ perception of their City leaders and City workers will change as a result of your product?
  • What benefits can you articulate about your product, other than “cost savings”?



Better decisions, not (just) better data

When a new smart city technology is pitched, the costs that the City has to bear are immediate. The benefits, though, are way out in the future. They’re framed in terms like, “the money you’ll save when you can optimize the routes of Public Works employees” or “the money you’ll save from delivering a City service only to those who need it.”

The problem is that those benefits are nebulous and really hard to achieve. They require behavior change—and, sometimes, policy changes—on the part of some other person or department. And behavior change that is dynamic, based on the output and analysis of some data that they didn’t necessarily collect. We’re really far away from knowing how to affect that sort of behavior change within City government. And that’s why, so far, most smart city pilot projects have ended with Powerpoint presentations of data.

So try to move beyond “data,” “algorithms,” and the like. Let’s talk about the stuff that makes those things useful and usable.

Key Questions

  • Have you identified the behavior or policy change associated with your smart city product?
  • Do you know how that group’s decision-making actually works? For example, 97% of the City of Boston’s employees are unionized–do their contracts allow for the behavior change or flexibility that you’d like to see?
  • What evidence is there to support your claim that the long-term benefits of your product can be achieved in Boston?
  • How does your product make decision-making easy? (We’re not just talking about a pretty interface.)



Platforms make us go ¯_()_/¯

Over at, Ross Atkin writes: “The Smart City is a top-down all or nothing proposition. We can start building the Clever City bottom-up with one lamppost, bus stop or parking space (and of course one problem). Maybe one day we will join up all the individual Clever City services and will have a Smart City. Maybe we never will, but the Clever City can make a real difference to people’s lives right now.”

It’s too early for platforms. We don’t know what kinds of sensors we’ll use in Boston over the next 10 years, who will build them, what technical standards they’ll adhere to, and where they’ll go. We also don’t know how they’ll be networked, where they’ll store data, and who they’ll serve it to. As a City, we’re not in the business of making bets on what technology standards will prevail. (It’s why we’re working with the National Institute for Standards & Technology as part of our work.) Until those standards are clear and until we have a better idea of the technical landscape, we don’t need or want a “smart city platform.”

Key Questions

  • How is your product being made “future-proof” and inter-operable with other technologies and standards?
  • What standards would you like to see adopted in the “Smart City” landscape? How are you pushing those standards forward?



Towards a “public” privacy policy

Sensors aren’t new–the Boston Police Department monitors video cameras around the City and the MBTA uses GPS-trackers to sense the location of its trains and buses. But as and when the City starts to use them more frequently and for less obvious use-cases, there will be a sharp focus on our data collection and data management practices. Especially as those use-cases start to generate personally identifiable information (PII) that’s collected passively and in the public domain.

Our internal guidance is to collect as little data as possible to solve a particular problem. The truth is, we don’t know exactly what that’ll mean in the case of sensors and smart cities. We’re working with the ACLU, our legal counsel, and our Department of Innovation & Technology to craft a privacy policy for the use of urban sensors. So this is another area where we could use the help. Tell us what data you’re collecting; how you’re scrubbing it of PII before transmitting it; where and how you’re storing the rest of it; and what you’re doing to protect people’s privacy.

We’d love to have a City-wide, publicly-available “Privacy Policy” to share with residents and solicit feedback on. You can help us get there.

Key Questions

  • What are your data-sharing and data-management policies?
  • How do you deal with the issue of PII and how do your policies comply with existing best practices?
  • How will Boston residents and the ACLU react to these policies? Have you spoken to them?

Source: Boston Smart City Playbook — from the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics


(Visited 250 times, 2 visits today)

Related Posts

Please Leave a Reply. Thank You.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.