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Using Public Libraries as a Framework for Smart Cities

For us to design cities of the future, it is important for us not to forget the institutions that helped us get to where we are today. Public libraries have played a pivotal role in communities and will need to be at the forefront when thinking about and planning for smart city initiatives. Public libraries are often encouraging spaces in which technology, information, and curiosity come together to create the perfect atmosphere for innovation. Unlike schools or the workplace, the pressure to perform or be productive are lessened and exploration, and inquisitiveness thrives. Libraries are malleable institutions that mold themselves to fit the needs of everyone from children to older adults. They are often the sites for social services and resources, workshops and meetings, childcare facilities, or just shelters of relief during the hot summer months. Libraries have also become important when addressing the digital divide in cities across the county, by providing computers and internet services to those who may not have access at home.

Libraires fulfill all three of the cross-cutting topics ESI’s Center for Future Cities outlined at the top of the year. Public libraries are quality, well connected, accessible spaces that continue to foster inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems. With more startups, and micro businesses being launched by people of color, and low-income individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, Libraries have stepped in to close the gap for those who do not have access to quality paid help. The Baltimore County Public library launched Entrepreneurship Academy program which allows residents to participate in a 7-week course that guides aspiring entrepreneurships through every step of the business building process. The intensive workshop connects individuals who may not have the income to network with local established business owners, accountants, lawyers, etc. who are needed to launch a successful business.

Libraries are linking residents to external information and allowing hands on application and collaboration. The Free Library of Philadelphia launched the Business Resource and Innovation Center (BRIC) which helps support, entrepreneurships nonprofits, and inventors with personal guidance in research, funding, professional headshots, and digital & print resources. In a an 2019 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer , Rebekah Ray, former administrative librarian at the BRIC, talked about the program and its new space, and said “The library was the original co-working space and we’re just carrying on that tradition — but adding service to it”.

Libraries are even adapting and helping residents better navigate the built environment through modern modes of transportation. In Columbus Ohio, the city is using libraries as smart mobility hubs that offer a range of transportations options like, dockless e-bikes and scooters, pickup and drop off locations for yellow cab services, car sharing options, and interactive Wi-Fi kiosks that help you navigate the city’s transportation systems.

Smart city designers, consultants, planners, and city officials should look to public libraries as a guiding framework to launch smart city initiatives. Libraries continue to evolve as economic engines where access to contemporary technology, professional development tools and resources, as well as modern communal spaces serve everyone at every stage of life.

ESI Center for the Future of Cities is excited to learn from public libraries and incorporate similar intentional and equitable investments in resources and infrastructure that will help cities of all sizes cater to all residents.

Kendra Hills is an intern with Econsult Solutions supporting ESI Center for the Future of Cities. She is currently a masters student studying city & regional planning with a concentration in smart cities at the University of Pennsylvania.

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