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Building a smart city: It takes a village

The consensus at the Smart Cities Summit in Boston was clear if predictable: When it comes to building a smart city, teamwork is the key ingredient.

At the Smart Cities Summit in Boston, everyone teamed up for teamwork. Whether they were talking about smart city...

innovation, implementation, or benefits and challenges, speakers stressed that building a smart city involves many vendors whose products and services align and work together -- or at least are supposed to. Many appeals were made to the binding power of standards, though we aren't there quite yet.

Building a smart city portfolio: More than one vendor

Over a five-year period, the city of Chicago received 182,000 claims against it due to flooding, totaling an estimated $735 million in property damages. The city implemented several different solutions, including permeable pavers, bioswales and planters with native water-absorbing plants, and wanted to measure their effectiveness. It turned to IoT for the answer.

With sensors and cloud-based analytics, the city could monitor the soil's ability to absorb and filter rainfall. It wasn't an easy task -- and one city CIO, Department of Innovation & Technology Brenna Berman knew it couldn't take on alone.

"I don't think for anything at this scale Chicago would have been able to do it by itself, or even possibly with one company," Berman said.

With the help of City Digital, a smart city accelerator that brings together universities, corporations and city partners, the city of Chicago gathered a group including Microsoft, Senformatics, West Monroe Partners, Opti and AECOM to co-design an IoT project to benefit both the city and its partners.

Kansas City, Mo., needed a similar squadron of vendors. Bob Bennett, the city's CIO, said it took a team of 14 partners to launch Kansas City's smart city initiative, which brought smart street lights, interactive kiosks and more than 50 blocks of free public Wi-Fi to the city's two-mile streetcar route.

"There were 14 partners in that one little smart city, 2.2 mile stretch," Bennett said. "When we blow this thing out to the next 18 miles of space, I'm figuring that number is going to increase."

Start with the technology: Vendors playing nicely together

Sokwoo Rhee, associate director of cyber-physical systems program at NIST, posed the question, "Every vendor has a platform. Where can we meet in the middle?"

Chicago's Berman said the solution should be found in standards.

"We're not looking for a single vendor we'll all buy from," Berman said. "We are looking for the vendors who are saying 'we'll sign up for the standards' so that we know if we buy three things from three different vendors we're not going to spend the next 20 years trying to integrate that and maintain it."

"We need something in the middle, at least at the functional level," Rhee said. "Agree on the picture. And that vision can be different. We have to be inclusive not just from a city's perspective, but from a vendor's perspective. We want to bring in all the great innovation and technologies that vendor has and create a blueprint or starting point."

And the vendors, at least publically, aren't against it.

"All of us have a piece part," said Nader Nanjiani, marketing director of IoT at Harman International. "All of this is a framework; none of us has a full solution."

Lani Ingram, VP of smart communities at Verizon, had the same sentiment.

"One of the biggest issues that people think about when it comes to smart communities is that there's a single solution for everything, and there really isn't," Ingram said. "There's also not a single vendor for everything. I think the way for cities to truly win is to be able to have a consortium of partners that provide the right solution for the right pain point, and ensuring that you've got partners that are able to work together in a cohesive way to make that happen."

"This is the one place that I see everyone really coming together for the common good," Ingram continued. "Competitors are actually friends, we sit down in the same room because we want to be able to make this happen. And it's so hard to get this plane off the ground that we need to figure out the standards, but I think it's going to in a more natural, collaborative fashion as opposed to some one thing or even one industry going in there and trying to set it."

Don't forget about your users

After the vendors have worked together and cities have found their ideal mix of technologies, it's important to remember those who will be implementing the technology and, in the end, using the data.

To solve the implementation problem, the city of Seattle combined its entire IT staff into one department earlier this year. The previously siloed teams "resulted in an arms race around who in the city could build the best server -- and that wasn't helping anyone," said Michael Mattmiller, CTO of the city.

The reorganization allowed the newly formed team to assemble a single strategic plan for the city, Mattmiller said; it created a "city where our departments work together to identify solutions that collect the data to enable real-time decision-making and provide transparency and accountability to our public while still protecting the privacy of their personal information."

The benefits of smart cities and the data they create may make sense to a bunch of "tech nerds," said Kristin Seaver, CIO and executive vice president at the U.S. Postal Service, but it may not make sense to the average citizen. She added that it is critical to have conversations with the public to ensure they understand what the projects are for and how building a smart city can help them.

Lauren Riga, acting administrator, redevelopment at the city of Indianapolis and associate faculty member at IUPUI School for Public and Environmental Affairs, said that it is critical to know what you're asking of your users.

"If you're going to engage citizens, do some homework and be sure your inputs and variables help make informed decision-making," Riga said.

Nanjiani summed it up, saying that when building a smart city it was critical to "make the citizen the center of the equation and provide an experience that will make living within that city memorable and useful."

Next Steps

Do you know how smart and safe your connected city is?

Learn how smart cities are using IoT and explore three routes to maturing a smart city. 

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