How digital infrastructure is quietly transforming the metropolis
In a city and state that gets a lot of things wrong — from the state’s opaque, convoluted budget process to the city’s notorious operational failures at the central jail on Rikers Island — it’s worth noting that New York is largely getting the city’s technology right, building out an impressive digital infrastructure that is making the city greener, cleaner and primed for economic growth.
There’s no single definition of the term Smart City, but it generally refers to a place that creatively marries internet connectivity, data collection and leading-edge technology to improve municipal operations and create tools that allow a networked public to make bottom-up, innovative improvements to the quality of life. By that standard, New York in some quarters is considered the nation’s leading smart city — and needs to recognize, protect and expand that leadership position.
“There’s not a better big city in the world that has great utilization of smart city and connectivity than New York,” says Mike Finley, the CEO of Boingo, which provides cellular service and free Wi-Fi service at the local airports and train stations. “Quite honestly, I applaud the leaders for what they're doing and what they've been doing.”
The easiest way to understand the quiet revolution taking place is to look at the astounding 307 million Americans who own smartphones — a number equivalent to 85% of all adults — and consider how New Yorkers deploy the devices in ways that make our daily routines a tech-powered urban ballet that would be almost unrecognizable a generation ago. New Yorkers think nothing of asking our smartphones, using plain-language verbal commands, to locate a drugstore or nearby restaurant — and we expect to instantly get a map, complete with step-by-step instructions on how to get there on foot, by bike, via mass transit or by summoning a rideshare vehicle.
Smart-city scenarios are multiplying all the time — and to be sure, much of the evolution is the result of advancing private-sector innovation.
A growing number of subway and bus commuters use smartphones to pay their fare, and countdown clocks and data kiosks on nearly every platform have all but abolished the old pastime of impatiently peering down the tunnel wondering when the next train might arrive. Several apps can give us alerts about delayed trains, multiple alternative subway connections, and even show us which door of which car will put us closest to an exit at journey’s end. Apps show us where buses are in real time (yes, they’re far too often late).
Smart-city scenarios are multiplying all the time — and to be sure, much of the evolution is the result of advancing private-sector innovation. Amazing things can happen when public entities make oceans of data available to tech entrepreneurs, who then compete to fashion clever, useful apps, with profits provided by ads or subscriptions.
On the roads, drivers can use an ad-supported app like Waze to track and instantly analyze the speed and direction of thousands of drivers, using the data to tell us (or our cab driver) how to navigate around congestion, road construction and closed streets. And needless to say, a weather app will give us hour-by-hour forecasts and temperatures.
Some coffee chains and sandwich shops can ping our phones if we pass nearby, letting us know there’s a place to get a snack nearby so we can easily order food, pay online and either pick it up on the way or have it delivered. A similar ease applies to scheduling a telehealth visit, tracking the exact route and location of our child’s school bus, ordering goods on Amazon or collaborating on a shared document with a coworker on the way to a business meeting.
As New Yorkers invent and use smart-city tools, our government has encouraged and enabled these sorts of complex digital interactions. A state Smart Cities program launched in 2020 made millions available to local governments that competed to develop strategies for everything from conserving electricity to streamlining court calendars, monitoring air quality and cleaning up contaminated groundwater.
Here in the city, all NYPD officers are equipped with smartphones and tablets that supply them with real-time data about emergency 911 calls, missing person alerts and prior police activity at a location they are rushing to. The same devices are where officers keep their patrol notes (Those cops you see fiddling with their phones while on patrol are probably logging their activity, not playing Candy Crush.)
To help lower the cost of hauling New York’s trash to faraway landfills (estimated at more than $430 million a year), the Sanitation Department has installed more than 200 solar-powered composting “smart bins” around the city. New Yorkers can use an app to locate where it’s possible to drop off food and yard waste; the same app lets users open the bin with a smartphone. The initiative builds on an earlier installation of Big Belly public waste receptacles that use solar power to compact trash and alert Sanitation when a can is full or smelly.
In a seaport city where flooding and devastation make clear the impact of global warming, New York a decade ago launched the Accelerated Conservation and Efficiency program (ACE) that invested $350 million to retrofit the lighting in over 650 public buildings, mostly by installing LED bulbs, saving an estimated $800,000 a year and preventing hundreds of tons of greenhouse gasses from being added to the atmosphere.
And after many years of frustrating delays on Election Day, the city’s Board of Elections migrated the check-in process from paper ledgers to iPads, making signature verification smooth, fast and accurate.
The slow emergence of MyCity is an example of Adams’ penchant for embracing flashy, faddish tech strategies without sweating the decidedly unsexy back-end bureaucratic details.
There’s much more to be done. Despite a promising initiative that brought free wifi to the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing development, a 2018 report found that in a city with wide gaps in wealth, income, education and opportunity, many lower-income neighborhoods lack access to the affordable broadband connections that are the building blocks of many smart-city projects. As one high-ranking official told me: “I can apply for a million-dollar mortgage with my phone in less than 10 minutes. Why are we making poor people fill out endless pieces of paper to get food and shelter?”
And while Mayor Eric Adams campaigned on a promise to create a streamlined, easy-to-use portal called MyCity that would provide one-stop shopping for child care and other city services, the project is months behind schedule and currently provides little more than links to different agencies' siloed websites. Adams has drawn criticism from some civic technologists by moving away from early plans to have city workers build MyCity using open-source software; instead, substantial development has been farmed out to 14 private-sector firms working on 31 different contracts.
The slow emergence of MyCity is an example of Adams’ penchant for embracing flashy, faddish tech strategies without sweating the decidedly unsexy back-end bureaucratic details. The mayor took his first several paychecks in cryptocurrency just as the market was tanking, and is currently championing the use of a $74,000 robot dog, equipped with cameras, that an earlier administration had rejected, along with a robot sentry, the K5, that rolls around and provides camera surveillance as a crime deterrent (the K5’s debut in California a few years ago included rolling over a toddler).
Adams also floated the idea of placing automated weapons-detection devices at all subway entrances to make the trains safer — an unworkable idea that would, according to critics, slow the system to a halt at a cost of $3,000 per month for each of the system’s 1,928 entrances.
It’s important to remember that, with or without a tech-minded mayor, not all smart city strategies succeed. Urban planners point to Detroit and to aborted projects in Louisville and Toronto as examples of how even clever tech-driven strategies can’t reverse fundamental problems like the simultaneous decline in jobs, opportunity and population that haunted and harmed Detroit for years. And the new frontier of artificial intelligence has already had some stumbles, including predictive policing and employee hiring processes marred by accusations of racial bias.
But New York is wisely placing a big bet on becoming a smarter city, following a long-term plan to build the infrastructure for what comes next. Finley’s company, for example, is currently building connectivity that will bring cellular signals into train tunnels, so that riding underground won’t mean being separated from phone calls, messaging and other data connections.
“We really believe in smart cities in particular, that it's kind of built from the inside out,” he told me. “When 4G [a communications standard] was being developed, we used to get all the time, ‘What are the applications?’ 5G gets the same thing. But when 4G was being developed, Uber, Lyft, Netflix and streaming, those types of applications weren't listed as capabilities that would that 4G would enable. But that's exactly what's happened.”
The point, says Finley, is that we don’t know what new companies and uses are out there waiting to be created. “The reality of it is there is an incredible creative, innovative group of application developers, primarily in our country, but also around the world, that once these networks can get built, then these applications can further develop and get utilized,” he says.
As long as the city and state encourage the building of more connectivity, capacity and creativity — not only for government operations, but for ambitious artists and entrepreneurs — we’ll continue to be the place where the future of urban life is being designed before our very eyes.