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Foss: Smart Cities needs more public input

Foss: Smart Cities needs more public input

Foss: Smart Cities needs more public input
State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli held a press conference at Schenectady Fire Station 3, on Monday afternoon

If you were taking an exam that asked you to define the term "smart city," could you do it? 

Could you discuss what makes Schenectady a smart city and provide examples of how the city is using smart city technology? Could you describe how Mayor Gary McCarthy's smart city initiative will impact your life? 

I ask because even though McCarthy has made Smart Cities his flagship project, Schenectady residents still seem to know very little about it. 

This is partly because Smart Cities is complicated  — a jargon-filled big concept that can be difficult to unpack in a way that enlightens, rather than obfuscates.  

For an example of what I'm talking about, take a look at the official definition on the city's website: 

"The Smart Cities concept is centered on utilizing new technology and innovative methods of problem solving to improve a community's sustainability, efficiency and quality of life." 

Are your eyes glazing over yet? 

This dull statement of purpose points to another reason why people remain confused as to what Smart Cities is all about.

It simply isn't interesting to them, and the city hasn't tried very hard to make it interesting to them. There hasn't been meaningful public engagement on this project, and it shows. 

In his state of the city address last January, McCarthy made it sound like public outreach was a priority, stating, "We will be hosting neighborhood meetings and informational sessions to gather additional feedback on this project." 

Now it's September, and the town hall-style meetings that once seemed forthcoming have yet to be held. 

Which is unfortunate, because they're sorely needed.

The public should have the opportunity to hear city officials provide a comprehensive overview of Schenectady's Smart Cities project, and to ask questions and offer input. 

The city does know how to organize and publicize this type of event. 

In the past year, officials have met with Stockade residents to discuss ideas for making the neighborhood more resilient to flooding, to name just one example. They've also sponsored public workshops to share ideas for improving a busy stretch of Craig Street. 

Why not organize something similar to discuss Schenectady's Smart Cities initiative? 

If workshops are a good vehicle for informing the public about flood-mitigation projects and streetscape improvements, they're probably a good vehicle for informing the public about smart cities, too. 

The promise of smart cities lies in its ability to use technology to make residents' lives better and easier — to address age-old headaches such as potholes and traffic congestion, and make city services more efficient. 

Schenectady's smart cities initiative will only live up to its potential if it addresses the needs and wants of residents.

And the only way to do this is by engaging the public and finding out what they want from a project McCarthy has said will transform life in Schenectady. 

Up until now, the public has mostly been excluded from the smart cities project. 

Which is troubling on a lot of levels. 

But when you get right down to it, it just doesn't seem very smart. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.    

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