Reflections on building smart cities in 2023

By Starling Childs

Imagine living in a city that's not just smart, but savvy about tackling a range of challenges, from climate related to economic development challenges. Each year civic society inches a little bit closer to realizing this vision for a more sustainable urban future. It’s not some far-off dream anymore; it's becoming a reality. The whole Smart Cities scene has evolved, particularly around the buzz about making our cities resilient in the face of climate change.

In the early days, the idea of a “Smart City” was about deploying new tech like IoT sensor networks coupled with dashboarding data visualizations to nudge us into better behaviors. It had mixed results across the board. In 2023, the focus is shifting to making our city infrastructure tough – like superhero tough, as well as more interactive and more accessible to the many different types of people that are part of civic society. 2023 saw a lot of focus on initiatives like cutting carbon emissions, making our streetscape assets smarter, and getting our workforce ready to take on whatever a sketchier climate throws our way.

And can you guess what my favorite part is? Startups are playing a big role in this shift. Back in the 2010s, tech was all about reading the vibes, boosting activity, and making cities busier. Now, in the 2020s, it's getting serious. We're diving into the nitty-gritty of science—figuring out how to make our power grids smarter and more reliable, unclog our traffic-choked streets, and of course we’re still going to deploy more sensors to monitor trends and changes.. The difference is that these sensor networks are finally driving decisions better than before, due in part to better collaboration with stakeholders and neighborhood organizations like Business Improvement Districts -- more on this later!

Tech is also making cities nimble.

Thanks to a mix of edge computing, artificial intelligence, and urban planning, our cities are more in tune with what's happening. Think traffic—it's not just about cars anymore. Our fellow URBAN-X portfolio companies, Numina and XTelligent specifically, are helping cities peek into the chaos of busy intersections, making it easier for traffic wizards to swoop in and make things better.

Now, here's the fun part.

How a city selects and tests new tech says a lot about its street smarts. City pilot programs and cash incentives are like sparks for innovation. They're not just giving startups street cred; they're also pointing city funds toward the coolest ideas. But, it's not all smooth sailing. Cities need to shake up their old ways of buying stuff, be more flexible, let ideas flow. And for startups, the challenge is to find the perfect city match for their game-changing ideas.

How did this take shape in 2023 for Ginkgo? One word– partnerships

This year we started working with 2 major US cities, New York City and Long Beach, CA. These cities demonstrated the government leadership to recognize their local neighborhood organizations, in this case Business Improvement Districts, as legit partners in the game, and put in real effort to back them up with new technology.

Why am I so excited about this new move to support local partners? I've been right there, watching how these local heroes can seriously change the game for their neighborhoods, especially when they get a tech boost. But herein lies the rub: a bunch of awesome tech tools have historically been out of reach due to various adoption hurdles. Sadly, a lot of BIDs (that's Business Improvement Districts, if you're not in the lingo) could not afford the high costs for many data analysis and BI tools– not to mention a maze of complex configuration options, which only drives costs up more. Fortunately the NYC Places Data Hub just hit the scene this year thanks to a partnership between New York City Small Business Services, Ginkgo, UrbanLogiq and CIV:LAB. It's like the superhero sidekick for all NYC BIDs, giving them the tools they need to step up their game in the place management world they operate in. 

If you know of a city government that's ready to focus on creating stronger partnerships with local partners like BIDs, point them in our direction. I'd love to share how this is working so far.

Ginkgo’s Neighborhood Intelligence Software

In the end, it's not just about smart cities anymore. It's about cities that roll with the punches, learn from every storm, and keep getting smarter and more proactively involved at all tiers of engagement from neighborhood stakeholders right on up to each level of government. That’s the wave we want to ride with Ginkgo in 2024. 

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