Technological advancements have been eliminating complexity from our lives for decades. Phone calls can be made without touching your phone and a few swipes on an app can deliver a date, groceries or a babysitter to your door in minutes. We've been extended the best technology has to offer thanks to companies competing on a global scale to build differentiated value into their digital products.

Despite these advances, far too many of us leave home and are immediately plunged into primitive experiences when navigating our cities. Your daily commute is one example. Time lost to traffic congestion and train delays and the environmental impact of emissions leads many of us to wonder, why hasn't innovation made navigating our cities easier? With the existence of IoT devices, LED bulbs with sensors, and live surveillance cameras, why aren't these resources being utilized to optimize public transit? Why aren't our cities as smart as our homes?

A smart city is defined as one that uses data and technology to enhance operational efficiency and deliver sustainable solutions to enable economic growth and enhance the quality of life for its community. By that definition, most major cities have implemented services that allow them to say they're "smart". So let's explore a different question, why aren't more cities smarter?

Why Your City Isn't Smarter

There are four key barriers keeping our cities from becoming smarter:

  1. Lack of infrastructure to support citywide smart projects

  2. Cities struggle to deploy technology efficiently

  3. Lack of resources to fund smart technology

  4. Limited alignment or visibility to smart projects across municipalities

Upgrading city-wide infrastructure requires investments in energy efficient and green technology as well as broadband internet. According to a recent Brookings report, a quarter of Americans live in low subscription areas where less than 40% have access to broadband. Beyond identifying infrastructure needs, cities need to employ experts to oversee the planning and execution of city-wide technology projects as they are complex and often require public and private resources. Pittsburgh and Atlanta have both appointed Chief Technology Officers to lead their city-level "smart" strategies.

Atlanta is financing their smart city initiatives through a $250 million bond, however, the Deloitte Center for Government Insights published an overview highlighting the need for additional funding and grants through federal legislation to support the broader adoption of smart city technologies. Despite having limited or no federal support, several cities are already deploying smart projects, but these initiatives are often siloed, and it's difficult to connect them to a broader statewide or national directive. Without greater visibility, it's challenging for other cities to measure and understand how these initiatives perform, which impacts the planning and funding of future projects. Understanding how these cities have been able to effectively gather, analyze and action their collected data informs if these smart city projects are truly scalable.

Defining objectives and metrics and allowing cities nationwide to harness this collective intelligence would increase the visibility of these efforts, inform further investment and eliminate duplication of ineffective programs.

Success needs an ecosystem

One potentially surprising city making great strides towards becoming a "smart city" is Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 2010, Chattanooga was the first to introduce city-wide fiber internet. The internet reached 10-gigabit speed in 2015 and was foundational to the city government's goal of developing smarter infrastructure. While other major cities are now catching up, Chattanooga experienced significant economic growth by being the first to offer inexpensive access to the fastest and most pervasive internet. The city attracted hundreds of tech companies, entrepreneurs and venture capital firms by creating an ecosystem, supported by local government, where business setup and living costs were low and research partnerships furthered innovation. The variation of industries and business types within the Innovation District, Chattanooga's Silicon-Valley inspired tech campus, continues to attract great talent and collaboration. Educational curriculum and elective programs have been created across grade levels to continue fueling that tech talent pipeline.

Unsurprisingly, Chattanooga has become a testbed for other smart cities. The city has also engaged in unique research partnerships by leveraging the enormous data capacity of its fiber optic network. The University of Chattanooga is working in partnerships with the Metrolab network, where university researchers and policy makers are paired to improve city infrastructure and sustainability. One noteworthy project is exploring "real time" machine to machine (M2M) communication on fiber and 5G to test autonomous vehicle networking scenarios in urban environments. These M2M principles are being explored to support the city's overall goal to improve large-scale fleet management which will optimize traffic patterns in consideration of ride sharing services, autonomous vehicles and public transportation.

Don't get left behind

Cities not planning to address or currently deploying the following three technologies should be concerned:

5G Networks

In addition to Chattanooga, several other major cities including Miami, DC and Atlanta are already testing 5G networks that transmit data at incredibly fast speeds with low-latency. While this technology has been most commonly used for wireless mobile networks, 5G "gigabit" internet is already being deployed in homes and IoT city sensors.

Improved Transportation Infrastructure

Major cities should look no further than Pennsylvania for guidance on how to create better transportation infrastructure. Cities that focus on solving for the causes of delays and creating the infrastructure to enhance mass transit will attract the businesses and talent needed to support economic growth. At minimum, public transit authorities should look for ways to empower riders with valuable information. For example, make bus and train locations trackable and visible to riders so they can better plan commutes.

Blockchain

Cities should be planning how they can leverage blockchain to improve cybersecurity, manage energy systems or share secured information and execute smart contracts. European countries are already exploring blockchain e-voting systems. Realizing blockchain's capacity to improve large and small tasks between public and private sectors will be a transformative ingredient in the success of the smart cities of the future; from streamlined supply chain processes through transparent standards management to a reliable registry of local businesses. Blockchain can also facilitate swift and accurate payments or money transfers. From cybersecurity to business registries, applications of blockchain can be found in many surprising places.

Final Word

The rapid rate of change will make investing in smart city innovations without succumbing to technology obsolescence a challenging task. However, a governing body that recognizes the power of creating infrastructure to support connected digital states and cities is key to enabling technological relevance. With the unified goal of implementing technology in high-density areas to address emissions, operational inefficiencies and quality of life, cities and states can begin to take collective action.

Each municipality can uncover which services matter most to its citizens and where they have persistent problems. The data highlighting those inefficiencies is the best place to start exploring smart city projects that will have widespread adoption. The worst thing any city can do is invest time and resources into smart urban planning, only to develop services or experiences that no one recognizes, uses or values.

Published on: Oct 10, 2018