Smart City, USA: the moment of truth

Nathalie Doré

Nathalie Doré

CEO North America 


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April 12, 2016 Drop a comment
De nombreuses personnes qui traversent un passage piéton à New York.

Today one in three US citizens already lives in one of the three biggest cities in the country and the trend is continuing. On the other side of the Atlantic, there is now a pressing need to adopt ‘smart city’ practices if urban residents are to obtain the services they need going forward.

The ‘smart city’ is a subject of great interest to L’Atelier. We have been following the concept closely –from Paris to Shanghai to San Francisco – for a number of years now and it has in the meantime started to become a very hot topic in the United States. The USA seems to have arrived at a tipping point and many people have come to realise that city models designed in the last century will fail to meet the challenges of the future.

US cities – like many others worldwide – need to transform, even while they still continue to rely largely on their sometimes very weighty legacy systems. There is no question here of creating a smart city from scratch, but to enable existing cities to evolve.

Every hour, ten new people move to New York

The global tendency towards increasing urbanisation – in 2050 over 65% of the world’s population will live in cities taking up barely 2% of the surface of our planet – is particularly true of the United States. One US American in three lives in one of the three biggest cities in the States and the trend is continuing. Ten new people move to New York City every hour.

Unchecked urbanisation and increasing population size in cities will obviously begin to challenge available resources such as water and food supplies, so we need to think about the way we consume those resources. In fact we are currently seeing a lot of solutions emerging in the food and agriculture sectors, including such novelties as meat-free burgers – which we tried at Impossible Foods in San Francisco and found to be excellent. However we also need to limit wastage in general and optimise resources across the board.

Vue de Brooklyn

Ageing infrastructure

Meanwhile as US cities continue to expand, they are being faced with a rather difficult equation in the transport field. As the population increases this leads – given that Americans are still very much in love with their cars – to more and thicker traffic jams and greater pressure on ageing infrastructure, whether we are talking about roads or public transportation facilities. Moreover, as house prices have gone through the roof, people on modest incomes now often have to live further and further away from their place of work.  And at the end of the day it must never be forgotten that the most important factor in the equation is the city’s inhabitants, whatever their level in society.

Last September, illustrating the increasing awareness of these issues across the United States, President Obama announced his ‘Smart Cities’ initiative which, says the White House blog, ‟will invest over $160 million in Federal research and create more than 25 new technology collaborations to help local communities tackle 21st century challenges”. However, this will be the bare minimum required. A report from Bloomberg Philanthropies has revealed that only 28% of mid-sized US cities actually take steps to adapt their planning in line with their analysis of the data they have gathered.

There lies the key point: human beings, citizens. Data is most often collected from city residents and analysed with the residents in mind. Whereas in the past s/he was rather left out of consideration, the citizen is now once again the focal point of a number of initiatives. Google spin-off  Sidewalk Labs is for example setting up companies in partnership with entrepreneurs.


Des jeunes dans la rue à Oakland.

Linking Brooklyn with Manhattan in around 30 minutes

One example of a major infrastructure project is the East River Skyway, based on the sort of gondola widely used in Europe as a mountain lift for skiers and hikers. In many cities worldwide, similar systems such as the Singapore cable car and the Memphis (Tennessee) to Mud Island monorail are already up and running. There are many advantages: ultra-fast and relatively environmentally-friendly a gondola can take up to thirty-five people and the route can be integrated into the rest of the transportation system.  Studies have established that in New York City a gondola lift could link Brooklyn to Manhattan in around thirty minutes, i.e. shaving twenty-five minutes off the current average journey time.  

The urban resident is the focal point for these innovations, their main driver and goal being quality of life in the cities of the future.


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