The City of Boston is working to transform the way communities approach problem solving, block by block. Like many smart cities, Boston recognizes the potential of technological interventions. Missing from the exploration, development and implementation of these technologies, however, is a truly democratic engagement process. Moreover, there is a pervasive problem in many smart city interventions: too much time inventing and marketing solutions and too little time spent understanding the real problems people in cities face.
Because of this, the city of Boston is reevaluating the way they frame problems, looking at what questions to ask residents, and evaluating who they’re engaging when looking to pursue potential solutions.
This is where the Mayor’s office for New Urban Mechanics comes into play, and the Beta Blocks program. This civic experimentation process builds meaningful relationships between communities that have identified a challenge and the companies, researchers and designers who might be able to help. This allows residents to define what their idea of “smart technology” should be, what constitutes real value for their situation.
One such application is in the Smart Transportation Sector, where Boston hopes to build a “Teaching Hospital for Transportation”. Based on the Beta Blocks principles, it will unite research and development, new technology, universities and community leaders and government to create the next generation of streetscapes.
Those engaged in the Teaching Hospital for Transportation – and the broader transportation innovation community – will not simply need a place to connect; they will need a place to test their ideas, and a way to get them to scale. This will create a city that is radically programmable – where the infrastructure is built for rapidly deploying innovations sourced from anywhere; where new updates mean pushing software and plugging in modular hardware, not rebuilding from scratch with each new improvement. Boston will put together infrastructure that shrinks the lag that can exist between “study” and “street.”
This project will be provide three arenas for testing: a digital simulator, a set of Beta Blocks, and a networking of peer cities.
The digital simulator–an expansion of current city simulators from Boston University and other universities — would allow innovators to model their intervention using a variety of contextual and specific data sets, to understand the impact of their idea on equity, safety and resilience. Promising ideas will then be tested on city “Beta Blocks” or with a “Beta Fleet.” These will be designated corridors and vehicles in Boston that will be – and, in some cases, already are – instrumented so that new technology, materials and uses can be easily tried and evaluated. Locations will reflect a full range of built environments, and vehicles will comprise a variety of sizes, personal and commercial uses, and modes.
With paired locations and built-in sensors to make A/B testing results instantaneous, innovations can be quickly tested in an environment that is representative of urban areas and urban fleets. Successful interventions on the Beta Blocks or with the Beta Fleet will then have quick access to scale in Boston and collaborating cities through handson support from the “Scale Team”. The Scale Team will be a small staff embedded in a select group of cities across the nation – cities selected for a diversity of representative infrastructure and forward-leaning leadership. These cities will help scale ideas quickly by extending data standards, drafting policy, and helping entrepreneurs and researchers communicate and adjust their concept for the next set of constituents and practitioners.
To learn more about this smart city program, attend Jaclyn Youngblood’s session at Connected Cities USA. https://connectedcityusa.com/schedule/bostons-beta-block-civic-experimentation-program/