Are Boston and New York City Ready for AI Adoption?

Can AI adoption keep pace with the frenzied, sprawling image of an intelligent future? It depends on who you ask - and where you ask it. The Oliver Wyman Forum, a research hub specializing in economic and industry growth, tracked AI and automation initiatives in 105 cities around the globe. The success of these projects was determined with four metrics: vision and mindset, activation, asset base, and trajectory and development. And though Boston and New York placed 2nd for cities of their size, the Forum uncovered a striking commonality across locations: the persistent gap between expectation and execution.

How Did Smart Cities Become So Unintelligent?

The "smart city" has long held its perch on the futurist pedestal. And many of its applications have, or will, reduce the complications of dense urban life. AI has a central role to play here: from traffic management for decreased air pollution, to city-wide 5G internet for increased access and connectivity. The problem is, no city has successfully integrated these pieces into a coherent whole. And none excel in all four of the Forum's categories: 

  1. Vision, priorities, and mindset - has a thorough grasp on the opportunities and challenges of technological integration, and has an action plan to address the latter
  2. Activation - stakeholders, both public and private, are positioned to execute plans in a collaborative and efficient manner
  3. Asset base - draws from strong existing assets including higher education, talent pool, early STEM education, infrastructure, etc.
  4. Trajectory and development - is growing and executing plans integral to future success

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The lack of a clear leader raises a few problems. First, it deprives other cities a case study, or adaptable road map, for the integration of smart technologies. Second, it highlights the lack of cogent regional and national policies addressing AI. The closest effort would be the Smart Cities and Community Act, but it has only recently been introduced to the Congressional floor. Without standards for AI adoption, most cities have been integrating smart technologies ad hoc, undermining financial and operational efficiency, and increasing security vulnerability.

Controlled Disruption in the Northeast

This raises interesting questions for cities leading the effort forward. If they are unlikely to excel in all four areas, which should be prioritized? Which will yield the best results for their residents? Their businesses? Both Boston and New York are wrangling with these concerns. The cities ranked second in their respective groups*, testifying to the Northeast's flourishing technological landscape. However, the areas in which they succeeded, and the resources they drew from, varied widely. And this distinction is where things get really interesting:

Boston New York City
Boston Global Cities NY Global Cities

Images courtesy of the Oliver Wyman Forum.                 

The only rank comparison between cities was for the "Assets" category, and even then just one of five sub-groups. Both were third in "Workforce", which accounted for employment in tech jobs, at-risk jobs, labor productivity, and the percentage of the population under 25 (increasing the likelihood of technical adaptability). The greatest variation can be seen between "Education and Research" and "Companies". Despite the high concentration of research facilities in New York, Boston held first due to rates of patents and tertiary education (which considers the education of the current workforce, and ability to adapt to new specialized roles) as a percentage of total population. New York excelled in "Companies" due to greater connectivity and a larger number of leading global firms, again relative to population.  

So what's a city to do? Especially one with a considerably smaller asset pool? The Forum found that while larger cities may have more resources to choose from, it is smaller ones, with greater focus, that are going to become global AI leaders. This has been the case in Boston, where thriving research facilities are fueling a biotech boom. Just across the Atlantic, Amsterdam and Stockholm are hotbeds for Europe's startups, despite their relatively small size. The key is specialization. Amsterdam has focused on financial and travel startups, while Stockholm pioneered the field of music tech. The latter also happens to have produced the most unicorn companies per capita after Silicon Valley. By investing in their strengths, these cities may very well close the gap between expectation and execution. Providing the Forum's much-needed AI bastion, and indeed guiding us into a more intelligent future. 

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*New York was ranked for "Mega Cities" with populations that exceed 10 million. Boston was ranked for "Medium Cities" with populations from 3-5 million.