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Why do cities get smarter? Learn from these smart city examples

When it comes to making cities smart, some cities are better positioned or equipped to make the leap than others. What makes a city more inclined to embrace smart technologies — such as sensor networks, data platforms and autonomous vehicles — than the rest? A range of factors, including local government’s willingness to embrace innovation and open data, as well as a vibrant private technology sector, all make an impact. Four cities that have already begun implementing smart city technologies feature strong support from the local governments and ample private sector support to see the initiatives to fruition.

These successes can be modelled by other cities hoping to make the transition.

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus is one city with exemplary characteristics, making it ripe for a smart city transformation. This is one of the reasons the city won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Smart City Challenge in 2015. In addition to the original $50 million grant given to fund the city’s plans, it has since raised over $500 million to support its smart city journey and recently hired chief innovation officer Mike Stevens to lead the effort. What made Columbus stand out from the other finalists — Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco — and claim the grand prize?

For starters, the city’s plan proposed a “first-of-its-kind modern transportation system” that was both climate-friendly and fueled by data. City officials also plan to implement a variety of smart technologies including streetlights that are also wireless internet hubs, a system allowing emergency vehicles to interact with traffic signals, common payment systems, smart mobility hubs and smart streetlighting.

While many of these technologies could be replicated in cities around the world, what sets Columbus apart is the local government’s commitment to implementing the policy. The city has hosted workshops for residents to explain the plan, highlighting another key stake of the plan that allowed it to win the grant: inclusiveness and accessibility to all citizens.

A vibrant private sector is also playing a large role in Columbus’ transformation. Not only did more than half of the city’s funding come from private companies, but a Silicon Valley think tank, Singularity University, recently announced it would be opening a smart city accelerator in the city. It hopes to spur innovation, and was drawn to Columbus after it was awarded the DOT grant.

Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas City, although a runner-up to Columbus in the challenge, has also made strides towards its smart future. In May, the city was honored with an Edison Award for its data collecting initiative, specifically along its downtown streetcar line, that gathers information to help businesses adjust to the ups and downs of foot traffic. The city also leverages Wi-Fi kiosks installed downtown to gather data about who is in the area, where they are from and if they are a new user or not. All of this data is leveraged in real time to inform streetlight efficiency, alert police to send more patrols and help businesses in the area create better marketing strategies.

The data platform has become the basis for Kansas City’s future, and the city has grand plans for its future. The city’s CIO Bob Bennett has a lofty goal: to be the smartest city on Earth within five years. Whether this comes to fruition remains to be seen, but a strong commitment from city leaders to embrace smart technologies for the benefit of citizens has allowed the city to implement many of the game-changing technologies it has invested in.

Pittsburgh, Pa.

Another city hoping to be a smart leader is Pittsburgh. Similar to Columbus and Kansas City, Pittsburgh has also put data at the center of its smart initiative. After forming partnerships with universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, the city created an open data platform to provide citizens with real-time data about crime, emergency calls, building permits and even a snowplow tracking app. Named “Burgh’s Eye View,” the open-data platform was built by the city’s analytics and strategy team and shows how city governments can leverage the data they have at their disposal to develop solutions that positively impact people’s lives.

The Carnegie Mellon partnership also turned the city into the university’s “urban lab” and the city was also awarded a $10.9 million DOT grant to expand the use of smart traffic signals innovated by the university. This, along with the “green light governing” strategy Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto embraces, has moved the city to the forefront of the smart city conversation. This style of governance follows the belief that innovating by private companies should come before regulating — one of the reasons Uber chose the city as the testing ground for its autonomous car pilot late last year.

Boston, Mass.

Boston also hopes to make its smart city mark. The city has implemented an open data portal, Analyze Boston, granting citizens access to a range of data including electricity usage in the city, crime reports and traffic patterns. This open data also enables private companies to innovate using the government’s data to create useful resources for residents including bus tracking apps or the city’s data-sharing agreement with Waze that will improve traffic flow throughout the city. The mobile-ticketing initiative on the MBTA commuter rail also enables data collection and improves riders’ daily lives by removing obstacles to seamless travel including long lines to purchase paper tickets.

The smart city has also used data to try to solve a big transportation issues that plague many cities — lack of adequate parking and the congestion resulting from drivers searching for an open spot. The city has experimented with increasing prices in certain areas and installing smart sensors that adjust prices throughout the day based on demand. This willingness to innovate new solutions and embrace data puts Boston at the forefront of the smart technology movement.

A common theme

What do Columbus, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Boston have in common, other than being smart technology leaders? A commitment from government leaders to embrace technologies like open data platforms and smart sensor networks, along with the willingness to foster innovation from the private sector. If cities want to make the journey to being smart, they should look to these leaders for examples of how to find success.

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