Why It’s Time To Retire The Phrase ‘Smart City’

This article was published in the Forbes Technology Council, an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs, and technology executives.

This year, efforts by public agencies to improve community safety and well-being with smart, data-driven services have reached a tipping point. In 2018, IDC researchers predicted that the deployment of next-generation technologies such as edge computing, artificial intelligence, and 5G bandwidth throughout the country would fuel local spending on “smart city” connectivity to the tune of $158 billion by 2022.

However, the cascading effects of Covid-19, regional wildfires, and localized flooding have had a tightening effect on municipal budgets, employment, and progress on health and safety. Yet research shows these same conditions have accelerated the need for interactive digital services for community members and optimized information gathering by decision-makers. How can policymakers and technologists collaborate to deliver the promise of smart cities to every metropolitan region?

Step 1: Focus On Communities, Not Cities

No question, the “smart city” brand is widely familiar from media coverage of the latest slate of “Top Ten Global Smart Cities,” U.S. Department of Transportation-sponsored Smart City Challenge or annual smart city expos held in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, and Atlanta.

With the exception of a few showcase pilot programs, entire cities are rarely the recipients of these advanced services. Elected officials and appointment managers of individual agencies are the ones seeking efficient solutions to ongoing problems such as illegal dumping, water quality management, or safer parks and recreation. These agencies have both the budget and mandate to improve the quality of life in their communities.

Recently, my company worked with the Alameda County Department of Justice in California to provide an AI-enabled solution to reduce illegal dumping by monitoring physical activity and associated vehicle license plates. Police department data identified locations where dumping was common, and those local businesses agreed to mount video cameras on their rooftops. Because the city has guidelines preventing the use of facial recognition algorithms, actions (such as car doors opening or actual dumping) rather than faces triggered the video alerts.

Step 2: Find One Use Case, And Build On Success

Every smart city’s digital infrastructure requires careful planning and construction. There are no off-the-shelf smart cities. When new communities are positioned to build the physical infrastructure of roads, buildings and services in tandem with their data management platform, they are still tasked with attracting inhabitants and creating a cultural fabric.

More commonly, smart digital infrastructure arises directly from the needs and choices of local residents. Municipal governments are increasingly using “chief innovation officers” and “chief data officers” to oversee the integration of this technology and oversee results. This approach builds consensus among decision-makers, builds support, and enables vendors to scale up for new uses. This “platform” model requires users to subscribe to infrastructure as a service, using as much or as little as needed.

Step 3: Leverage SCaaS Solutions To Generate Savings And Revenue

study by engineering consultants Burns & McDonnell and commissioned by Texans for Clean Water found that nine Texas cities spend more than $50 million annually to combat litter and illegal dumping in their lakes rivers, and other water sources. Imagine the increased effectiveness and reduced budget stress if the same agencies invested in deterrent infrastructure, including AI-enabled remote monitoring and cameras, in addition to other abatement programs.

Recent U.N. forecasts show that two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in densely packed megacities by 2030. This demographic trend is driving the need for precision planning and resource allocation by smart, tech-enabled communities. Today, municipalities are seeking tech-enabled options to avoid or reduce costs associated with a range of lifestyle and well-being issues: infrastructure maintenance, improved transportation and mobility, law enforcement, environmental monitoring, and energy allocation. Smart communities can also capture new revenue opportunities leveraging the same SCaaS toolkit.

Linking smart metering with IoT data networks is another revenue opportunity for communities. Drivers, lacking coins to feed parking meters, may park elsewhere or not pay and risk getting a parking ticket. But the convenience of paying with mobile phones or credit cards prompts more consumers to pay for parking in highly trafficked urban centers, adding revenue to city coffers.

Step 4: Invest In The Right Technology For Biggest Savings

With this approach, residents need not worry if their town isn’t mentioned on the next list of top 10 smart cities. By applying a SCaaS model, every community can access the latest collaborative technology to improve the safety and livability of its urban area.

Many SCaaS services are centered on the data-gathering power of IoT-connected sensors and devices. The capabilities of these interactive sensors will grow exponentially with the deployment of edge computing.

Consider how cities already have IoT devices operating on a wide range of locations, from street corners monitoring traffic to aqueducts monitoring water quality. Data is sent to the cloud or off-site data center for software to crunch and determine findings before sending notifications. Even the fastest transmission has latency issues.

On an international level, Vision Zero, a consortium of cities, nonprofits, and business partners, is focused on eliminating traffic fatalities. Partners are using edge computing and artificial intelligence to unlock data to improve safety at intersections, crosswalks, and highways. This ambitious program is another example of the SCaaS approach. It tackles one definable use case, validates hard data, and scales with proven solutions.