SANTA CLARA, Calif. — While some argue there is no such thing as a smart city, U.S. cities continue to work to earn the title.
Some of this is about nomenclature, of course. Practitioners say that the term smart city focuses too much on technology-centered gadgetry rather than people-centric solutions to problems. Smart city initiatives, they argue, need to focus less on vendors and more on the problems that city occupants need solved, including congestion and transportation issues, air and water quality, and energy efficiency and mobility. Even The Atlantic magazine recently sent a shot across the bow, arguing “there is no such thing as a smart city.”
“I abhor the term smart city unless I’m in a forum like this,” said Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer, city of Kansas City, Mo., in a panel discussion among three of the finalists of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge at IoT World 2018 conference. “You have to use the technology to solve a people problem first.”
The panelists had gathered to discuss their efforts in Kansas City, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco to bring smart city concepts to their areas.
Smart city initiatives gather steam
But if the terminology is debated, there can be little doubt that the concept has gained momentum.
IDC predicts that global spending on smart city initiatives will reach $80 billion in 2018, $22 billion of which is in the U.S., and will grow $135 billion by 2021. According to IDC, intelligent transportation, video surveillance, smart lighting and environmental air quality are the areas of greatest investment.
“Smart Cities have recently evolved from a collection of discrete flagship projects to a sizeable market opportunity,” wrote Serena Da Rold, program manager in IDC’s Customer Insights & Analysis Group.
For the city of Portland, a key initiative was to better exploit the data it gathered from internet of things devices in particular — devices connected to the internet to gather data about their environment — and smart city initiatives more generally. So the city launched the Portland Urban Data Lake (PUDL) to create a repository for data, develop analytics from its smart city initiatives and create standardized, documented access to this data. PUDL will enable the city to learn quickly from the data.
“We’re in a position to innovate and iterate very quickly,” said Maurice Henderson, chief of staff and director of strategic initiatives for the city of Portland. “The rich data sets — pedestrian data, traffic data, air quality data — inform the content investment decision we make at the city level. We can leverage that data to make mistakes and, as we like to say, fail fast.”
In San Francisco, a key area of focus was traffic congestion and mobility in busy downtown areas. The city has worked with regulators and others to ensure that bus transit is smarter.
“We have a thriving and busy city,” said Linda Gerull, the CIO and director of technology for the city of San Francisco. “So getting down the road can be a challenge.”
As a result, Gerull said that the city has introduced IoT-connected cameras and sensors for meters to ease parking issues and for buses, to help optimizing traffic routes.
“Each bus is a mini-data center,” Gerull said. “It has networking, cameras and sensors on it. We have hundreds of mini-data centers.”
Gerull said it’s necessary to partner with legislators at the local and federal level to ensure the city’s new mobility efforts secure data and offer the best transportation options to city occupants. “We are working with legislators to make these technologies useful for the city and stay ahead of the regulatory process that obviously needs to happen,” she said.
Not every panelist, however, sees federal government partnerships as an unmitigated good. Federal funds can bring unnecessary complexity.
“As far as the federal partnership goes,” Bennett of Kansas City said, “they can’t get out of their own way. Write the check, and get out of my town.”
For all the cities on the panel, another struggle is how to build out infrastructure and connectivity to enable cities to stay connected. For all three cities, one of the key technologies on the horizon is 5G, the latest generation of cellular, a necessary piece of the connectivity equation for IoT-connected devices, mobile and other bandwidth “hogs.”
Kansas City is in discussions with telecom providers, such as Sprint, to extend connectivity. But, Bennett said, the goal is to build connectivity without having the city foot the whole bill. As others have noted, the goal is to balance the goals of the private sector and the municipality.
“As we look to expand to 5G, the question is, ‘How do we as a city do it … where we’re not absorbing it completely cost-wise?'” Bennett said. “We are providing access. [Sprint is] providing the connectivity bit.”
Bennett sees public-private partnerships as critical to building out city infrastructure for the next generation.
“In 10 years, if my daughter decides to stay in the city, her world is connected,” Bennett said. “If we don’t have 5G, I live in a digital Rust Belt.”
In San Francisco, the approach has been, instead, to build out municipal broadband first. Gerull believes that broadband will support technologies like IoT and 5G and help generate revenue.
“5G is definitely part of our future,” Gerull said. “Systems that need 5G and IoT solutions will be incredible bandwidth hogs. We want to build out an infrastructure that will support these new technologies. We believe municipal broadband that is open access, net neutral, secure [and] managed is the way to do that.”
Partners, not vendors
For all cities, the focus was on creating long-lasting partnerships to support smart city initiatives long term. These relationships, Bennett stressed, make or break success in smart city projects.
In Portland, Henderson said that partnering with telecoms on infrastructure needs like 5G has benefited the city.
“We’ve learned innovative ways in partnering with telecoms to be more nimble, to look at that old infrastructure in our cities, to best leverage it and how to best prepare for this 5G world that’s coming,” Henderson said.
“I want partners in Kansas City, not vendors,” Bennett said.
Bennett added that while incremental change enables governments to stay nimble, it still requires commitment and long-term vision.
“My kids just expect the city to be connected and that everything they do is right here on their phones: paying their water bill to renewing a business license,” Bennett said. “But this takes time. This is going to be a long haul.”
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