SXSW Interactive Day 3: Designing the New Smart City

Imagine a city with lightning fast, free public Wi-Fi on every street corner and no pay phones. In this city, you can make phone calls, access city services, charge your devices and even vote by using artfully designed, sleek connection points with a touchscreen tablet interface. Because it’s a smart city, it will adapt to your needs, informing you when there’s a traffic accident in your neighborhood and even adjusting bus routes automatically in response. Hungry? If you choose to broadcast that information through your mobile phone, restaurants nearby can respond by broadcasting their specials.

LinkNYC: Paving the Way for Smart Cities and Advertising

Dave Etherington at SXSW 2015

Dave Etherington, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Offer of Titan, speaking at SXSW (Image: Connie Rock)

What’s the best thing about this city? It’s not a pipe dream. With the LinkNYC project, key elements of this city are being designed now. The project was the key focus at a fascinating South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive panel discussion on Sunday.

During the discussion, Colin O’Donnell, Dave Etherington and Jeff Henckels, all of whom are involved with LinkNYC, outlined the project’s vision. Billed as the “fastest and largest free municipal Wi-Fi deployment in the world” (up to gigabit speeds), LinkNYC is intended to be much more than that. According to O’Donnell, it’s also the first of its kind data-driven advertising network. “We want content (ads, emergency messaging, community art) to be programmed by the people who are proximate to it. We also want to open up the business opportunity [to advertisers] to understand who’s around you, so you can dynamically change the advertising,” O’Donnell says.

Revenue from digital advertising, which will be targeted based on the aggregate demographics of the areas where the connection points are installed, will fund the project. In turn, the project is expected to generate anywhere from $500 million to $700 million for the city of New York over a period of 12 years (LinkNYC’s media kit mentions $500 million, Etherington mentioned $700 million during the panel discussion).

New Experiences and Designs: Beyond Ads Pushed to Phones

Before this experience can be monetized, however, the industry must determine what is going to be considered valuable from the user standpoint. “We really have to grow up as an advertising and startup industry and not default to the laziest experience, which is to push an ad to your phone,” Etherington says.

Although they didn’t provide too many specifics on what that might mean for LinkNYC experience, all three panelists were enthusiastic about the value that smart cities can provide. As an example, through apps that enable visually impaired individuals to explore their cities, smart cities can be made to be more accessible to its residents. The data generated by sensors and other technologies can help city planners and others improve cities’ services and operational efficiency. Sensors in large buildings could monitor the temperature in each unit, quickly detect whether there is an issue such as a malfunctioning boiler, and the information could then be communicated to technicians—all without the paperwork and other administrative overhead that often comes with such maintenance and repairs.

Design-wise, the possibilities are ripe for forward thinking, elegant industrial designs for smart cities. Masamichi Udagawa, who with Sigi Moeslinger designed the award-winning Help Point Intercom for New York City subway stations, is one designer who is already well versed in this space. The intercoms enable subway customers to contact agents at an emergency dispatch center and each is equipped with a built-in video camera.

 Geeking Out on LTE Direct

Given the tech-savvy audience for the panel discussion and the fact that LTE Direct, a key emerging technology, will be used for LinkNYC, a major portion of the discussion was technical. LTE Direct is a device-to-device standard that will allow smartphones to communicate directly with other smartphones and beacons up to a 500-meter range, no cell towers needed. Think of it as next-gen Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), with much better range and scalability. While BLE takes minutes to discover hundreds and thousands of devices within range, LTE Direct, which should be generally available in mid-2016, can accomplish the same task in milliseconds, according to Henckels, Director of Strategy and Business Development at Qualcomm.

Colin O'Donnell speaking at SXSW

Colin O’Donnell, Founding Partner and Chief Operating Officer of Control Group, speaking at SXSW (Image: Connie Rock)

Also, while BLE uses private languages, LTE Direct uses a public language—in addition to private languages. With the ability to use public languages, LTE Direct provides new contextual capabilities. Beacons can emit public signals that can be indexed and made available to search engines. As a result, next-generation search will have a much better sense of context.

One disadvantage of LTE Direct is that it uses licensed spectrum, a barrier to entry and cost that BLE beacons don’t have. And as with any wireless technology, privacy is also a concern. When asked about how privacy was being addressed in the LinkNYC project, O’Donnell stated that the project team has worked closely with the administration of mayor Bill de Blasio to ensure maximum privacy—a critical step, because as O’Donnell says, “If you’ve lost user trust, you’ve lost everything.”

Proximity Technology: Making Smart Cities More Human-Friendly

New York City residents will be able to start roadtesting LinkNYC later this year. Production will start this summer, with the first few connection points to be installed in September. By the end of the year, a projected 200 connection points will be in place.

The ultimate goal behind projects such as LinkNYC and smart cities generally is to put technology in the service of human endeavors. As Henckels states, “Proximity is the next generation of Internet solutions. It’s not just about the city. It’s about all of you.” It’s about enabling experiences that let users keep their phones in their pocket rather than forcing users to stare at their phones. Or as O’Donnell puts it, “We have a beautiful world and we should appreciate it. Maybe with more context we can appreciate it more.”

To update the old saying, perhaps it’s proximity–not absence–that makes the heart grow fonder.

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