Working with IBM, the city of Portland in Oregon has developed a 25-year plan for becoming a “smarter” city. The plan is based on...

Working with IBM, the city of Portland in Oregon has developed a 25-year plan for becoming a “smarter” city.

The plan is based on a computer simulation designed to help city leaders see how municipal systems — the economy, housing, education, public safety, transportation, healthcare/wellness, government services, utilities, etc. — work together and identify opportunities for smarter operations.

All cities are made up of a complex system of systems that are inextricably linked. New policies implemented in one part of the city can affect other city efforts, citizens, businesses and the environment in unexpected and sometimes counter-intuitive ways. So IBM designed its System Dynamics for Smarter Cities model to help city officials reduce the unintended negative consequences of municipal actions on citizens, as well as uncover hidden beneficial relationships among municipal policies.

“By overcoming silos in the way we think, we are able to better visualize how our city systems work together and develop policies that achieve multiple objectives to help realize the full potential of our city,” said Portland Mayor Sam Adams. The model developed in partnership with IBM “arms our city leaders with ways to explore decisions,” he said.

IBM approached Portland in late 2009 based on the city’s reputation for pioneering efforts in long-range urban planning. It kicked off the project in April of 2010 by facilitating sessions with more than 75 Portland-area experts in a wide variety of fields to learn about how city systems interact. With help from researchers at Portland State University and systems software company Forio Business Simulations, the city and IBM also collected some 10 years of historical data to support the model.

The year-long project resulted in a computer model of the city as an interconnected system that provides planners at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability with an interactive visual model that allows them to navigate and test changes in the city’s systems.

For example, the city recently laid out plans to achieve a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. Officials already knew that shifting some trips away from driving to active forms of transportation, such as walking and biking, would be a part of how Portland meets its goals. When the IBM model was used to explore other relationships to active transportation, it revealed that, on average, obesity levels decline as more people walk and bike. So as obesity levels go down, active transportation becomes a more attractive option to more people. In other words, the tool highlighted a reinforcing feedback loop that could be used to jump-start a continued cycle of improvement.

“The City of Portland has served as a living laboratory during our year-long collaboration to explore how complex city systems behave over time,” said Michael Littlejohn, vice president of strategy for smarter cities at IBM. “While other analytical approaches rely on breaking a problem down into smaller and smaller pieces, the model we’ve created recognizes that the behaviour of a system as a whole can be different from what might be anticipated by looking at its parts.”

As a result of its collaboration with Portland, IBM is applying the experience and modelling capabilities it developed to create offerings to help other cities use systems dynamics modelling to improve strategic planning.