Q&A  | 

Brooks Rainwater, expert in city innovation

"A smart city collects, aggregates, and analyzes real-time data through technology to improve the lives of its residents."

Tags: 'Brooks Rainwater' 'Center for City Solutions' 'National League of Cities' 'Smart Cities'

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Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive and director of the US National League of Cities’ (NLC) Center for City Solutions. Rainwater drives the organization’s research agenda, community engagement efforts, and leadership education programming to help city leaders create strong local economies, safe and vibrant neighborhoods, world-class infrastructure, and a sustainable environment world wide.

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I lead the National League of Cities (NLC) Center for City Solutions. The Center for City Solutions provides research and analysis on key topics and trends important to cities and creative solutions to improve the quality of life of people in our communities.

The Center for City Solutions provides research and analysis on key topics and trends important to cities and creative solutions to improve the quality of life of people in our communities.

Within my work, I drive NLC’s research agenda, oversee technical assistance efforts and leadership education, cultivate talent and develop staff, and serve as a spokesperson on a myriad of city issues. I lead a team of twenty-five experts across the field of urban policy, and regularly advise cities both in the United States and globally on critical issues. My primary research interests center on the digital economy, mobility, the future of work, and local democracy.

What's a smart city?

A smart city is one that has developed technological infrastructure that enables it to collect, aggregate, and analyze real-time data to improve the lives of its residents. Smart cities should focus on smart infrastructure and data, administrative efficiency and excellence, and robust community engagement.

Smart cities should focus on smart infrastructure and data, administrative efficiency and excellence, and robust community engagement.

Advances in technology are deeply intertwined with the evolution of cities. As the world becomes more connected with each passing day, cities will increasingly integrate smart city projects to improve public safety, drive sustainability efforts, improve mobility goals, and center equity in decision making.

Which are the more pressing problems of cities nowadays?

The most pressing problem in cities is the changing nature of the workforce and rampant inequality. As we have continued our progression into a service economy, and technology has become the dominant economic driver, a growing portion of the population – and places – have been left behind. Wealth has flown toward the top, and many smaller cities and towns are not prospering as much as they did in previous eras. A concerted effort by all levels of government is needed to counteract this inequality as the fourth industrial revolution barrels ahead.

And which are the main equity challenges cities face?

The main equity challenges that cities face are the current global economic shifts, driven by technological change. The societal gains from technology are astounding, but we need intentional place-based policies that uplift the needs of people, and strengthened social safety nets to help us better transition into the city-led future that we all want to see.

The societal gains from technology are astounding, but we need intentional place-based policies that uplift the needs of people, and strengthened social safety nets to help us better transition into the city-led future that we all want to see.

As more jobs become knowledge-based, we need to create enhanced pathways for people to transition into the jobs of the future, while imbuing an entrepreneurial mindset more broadly into society. Local leaders are laser-focused on finding solutions that will alleviate the inequities in society. It is necessary to recognize that cities stand at the locust of these shifts, because cities are increasingly the economic engines across the globe.

How can smart cities tackle them?

Smart cities are functionally and fundamentally a needed suite of tools that allow city leaders and government employees to better deliver critical services to residents. At the same time, these digitally-enabled tools create enhanced pathways for communication so that civic engagement takes place in real-time and community input is enhanced. If we’re able to center the conversation around equity, city leaders can be intentional about utilizing technology as a force for good within their cities, while recognizing that epochal technological shifts can leave people behind. It is up to all of us to make sure smart city technologies are additive to society, rather than a negative force. 

You've said that 5G will transform cities and bring them back to places for people. Can you explain how?

I believe that 5G is a tool that will be able to greatly speed up digital transactions and smooth the ability for new urban technologies to flourish. The more that 5G can enable true edge computing, and instantaneous transactions and connections can take place with connected vehicles – and eventually autonomous vehicles – the better.

The more that 5G can enable true edge computing, and instantaneous transactions and connections can take place with connected vehicles – and eventually autonomous vehicles – the better.

With faster speeds, we will all be able to better communicate with one another. My hope is that 5G will help usher in more secure interactions that help counteract the current spate of digital infiltrations, utilizing tools like blockchain-based systems. Ultimately, the more we can use 5G to enhance seamlessness between mobility options and the urban environment, the easier it’ll be to ensure our cities are people-centric.  

Won't those with less access to technology and less tech savvy be left behind?

Those with less access to technology and less tech savvy will be left behind if we don’t create intentional policy to uplift them. The public sector has a number of tools to help do this, but the number one priority should be to make the right investments in public education. Another central public resource is the public library system. Today, they’re technologically forward-thinking institutions that serve communities large and small around the world.

Is a technology dependent city that smart?

Ultimately, it is not technology that makes a city smart. Rather, it’s the people within the city utilizing the technology that make a city succeed. We need to always keep our focus on people – and think about how we can uplift all members of our communities.

We need to always keep our focus on people – and think about how we can uplift all members of our communities.

Technology can make our cities better, but it is an input, not an output unto itself.

Cities are investing in intelligent transportation systems a big pilar of which are autonomous vehicles. Nevertheless, more and more cities are banning cars (ex. London), and many health issues nowadays have to do with sedentarism. Shouldn't getting rid of them in urban areas and turning to more active transportation the smart thing to do?

Cities are increasingly making the choice to ban cars on certain streets and more generally limit vehicles. This is undoubtedly good news for the people who live in and visit these places. Too often, decisions were made that fundamentally prioritized cars over people. We are experiencing an urban renaissance in cities, and with the advent of so many new mobility options it is critical to create space for all the modes people are using to get around. Some may be cars, but they also include – and should be given primacy – trains, subways, streetcars, buses, walking, bikes, e-scooters and other modes. Cities, first and foremost, are for people.