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Building a smart city requires overhauling outdated transportation infrastructure

U.S. cities of all sizes are experiencing an influx of new residents, and it’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, all but one of the nation’s 20 largest cities in 2015 saw their populations grow at an average rate that was almost double that of the previous decade. This is driving a parallel growth in the demand from residents and businesses for “smarter” cities. They expect municipal officials to leverage technologies that constantly collect and analyze volumes of data to improve the delivery of services, save energy, reduce traffic congestion, provide a boost to businesses and improve the overall quality of life. This requires making the modernization of the networks supporting their transportation infrastructure a top priority.

These aging networks were built decades ago and based on proprietary solutions. They are expensive to operate, difficult to maintain and create unacceptable levels of risk for citizens and first responders in the event of an emergency.

The technology exists today to turn train stations, bus stops, airports and even parking spaces and streetlights into an open, high-speed connected communications network that enables government agencies, local businesses and residents to interact and share information in real-time. Converting these “dumb” resources into interactive points enables residents and visitors to receive hyper-contextualized, proximity-based, relevant notifications tied to proximity services and businesses, tourist and cultural information on their mobile devices.

According to a new report by Deloitte, the financial leaders at the federal, state and local levels of government need to embark on some smarter thinking about how to get these projects underway. Partnering with the private sector is critical:

As a first step, this includes supporting policies such as fiscal incentives (including tax abatements), public-private partnerships (PPPs), and qualified infrastructure bonds specifically focused on smart city requirements. The public sector should encourage private-sector investment in new smart city partnership models that will reduce the near-term cost of investment in technology-enabled infrastructure (in an era of public resource constraints), while ensuring any risk and reward considerations are appropriately balanced.

In other words, without PPPs, a smart city plan will most likely remain stuck on the drawing board. If the results of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “2016 Smart City Challenge” are any indication, it appears the private sector in the U.S. is ready to help build smart cities.

Seventy-seven cities submitted entries to the DoT’s $50 million contest that detailed their plans to leverage new and developing technologies to solve their transportation problems. Columbus, Ohio, won the contest and will receive $40 million from the federal government and another $10 million from Seattle-based Vulcan, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The city will also reap an additional $90 million in matching funds from local companies, governments and nonprofits.

Private companies and nonprofits have committed funding and their expertise to help not only Columbus, but also the cities that didn’t win (or even enter) the DOT’s contest. These companies represent sectors such as cloud computing, telecommunications, electric vehicle charging infrastructure systems and wireless transmitters for vehicles and infrastructure. The DOT reported 150 companies and nonprofit groups have pledged as much as $500 million worth of support.

This statement from the Deloitte report underscores the urgency with which government agencies and the private sector need to place on modernizing transportation infrastructure:

Not only is the safety and security of our citizens and businesses at risk as infrastructure assets age and fall into disrepair, but so too is the broader economic well-being and global competitiveness of our cities and our country. Undertaking a broad-based smart city reinvestment and modernization program will help reduce costs, maximize revenue potential, and improve citizen well-being through the deployment of cutting-edge, technology-enabled infrastructure that is more environmentally friendly and resilient.

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