Five essential steps to becoming a smart city

Every city has its own needs, based in part on the region and country where it is located. Here are the main components to consider before adding smart city technology.
Written by Teena Maddox, Contributor

The urban population is growing, with nearly two-thirds of Americans and 54 percent of the world currently living in cities. As this number increases, with the World Health Organization predicting that by 2050, 75 percent of the people on the planet will be urban dwellers, it's even more important that cities become smart and use technology to improve the lives of citizens.

For any city seeking to become smarter, there are five major components that must be resolved before moving forward. If any of these steps are skipped, or done out of order, such as acquiring financing before creating a roadmap plan, or compiling existing resources before talking to stakeholders, it could result in unnecessary work, or duplicating services.

1. Plan what "smart" means for your city

Not every city will have the same goals and needs when becoming a smart city. The technologies a smart city needs vary based on the region and the country. Implementing technology simply because it exists isn't enough.

For instance, air quality sensors are essential in densely populated urban areas, but not every city is confronted with the same issue. In Pittsburgh, Pa., the focus is on clean energy and air quality, but in Washington, D.C., improving public transportation is key, according to Archana Vemulapalli, chief technical officer for Washington, D.C., speaking at a Smart Cities Week event in late September.

It's not just air quality and transportation issues. As previously reported by TechRepublic, in Chicago, the city is controlling the rodent population by using predictive analytics to determine which trash dumpsters are most likely to be full and attract more rats. In San Francisco, an app allows smartphone users to find available parking spots in garages throughout the city.

Implementing the technology that's most useful is one of the biggest challenges of becoming a smart city, said David Graham, deputy chief operating officer for Neighborhood Services for the City of San Diego.

"Smart for a city like Copenhagen [Denmark] will be very different than a city like Louisville. Back in the late 2000s, Copenhagen said, 'We're going to be carbon neutral in 10 years.' For them the smart agenda was really driven around energy efficiency and clean technology," explained Arvind Satyam, managing director of business development for smart and connected communities at Cisco.

In Dubai, smart meant providing citizens better access to services such as traffic, parking, and security, Satyam said.

"Think about what does smart mean for your city, and what does it mean in terms of what the city is trying to achieve," Satyam said.

2. Corral resources from the private and public sectors

It's essential to combine public and private sectors to find the best resources. Partnerships with academic institutions and private sector vendors can assist cities with funding and expanded resources.

Chicago is working with local universities and colleges to develop technology, and providing open-source code so that developers around the globe can use what Chicago has already developed and build upon it.

Brenna Berman, Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) commissioner and CIO, said, "Every city is facing tight budget times just like the city of Chicago, and there's no reason another city couldn't take our restaurant code [for example] and implement it without making the investment that we did. We plan to adopt other open source codes from other cities. There's a collaborative nature between municipalities and governments, so we're working on each other's behalf."

"The entire code itself is online so other researchers can take a look at this code and take a look at this data," said Tom Schenk, chief data officer for the city of Chicago. Researchers can then work on the code and improve it, or even use it for their own smart city projects at no additional cost.

Open standards and fostering open innovation is essential. "This is not a 'one company take all' kind of business," Satyam said.

3. Engage the citizens

Early in the process, it's important to engage residents at local town hall meetings and on social media in order to hear what matters most to them, and how their lives could be made easier with new technology in place.

For instance, Current, powered by GE, makes sensors that are placed within smart streetlights, and the sensors have a range of possible uses. The sensors can measure foot traffic in a given area, finding out how many pedestrians are on a city block at a certain time of day, which is useful information for any business that might be interested in moving to that area. The sensors also allow citizens to connect to an app to tell them the quietest path to take to get to their destination, which is convenient if someone is on a business call and doesn't want the sound of city traffic to interfere.

Knowing what people need and want makes it easier to plan, and having their approval helps with buy-in toward reaching the same target.

Vancouver, which has the goal of becoming the greenest city on earth by 2020, has done a great job with citizen engagement. It has engaged citizens by keeping in touch with them via a report card every six months, said Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council.

"Citizen engagement can be worked out, you can use social media. Companies like IBM can listen to social media and tell you what your citizen concerns are. They can tell you which side of an issue they're on. You really can know more granularly what your citizens need and want," Berst said.

4. The technology your city already has in place

"See what you have in your city already to brand as smart. Pull that together under a city vision and governance model that goes across city agencies, and you have a smart city program," said Carl Piva, vice president of strategic programs for TM Forum, a global trade association with more than 900 members.

Some of the existing technology in a city could be video cameras on public streets to improve safety or disaster response teams. If you combine these with a mobile city app, and then connect these to a software program that analyzes data, it could be easy to layer on additional smart city technology.

It's important to break down silos, so that each department within a city knows what the other is working on.

"One of the biggest issues we see if that most of the cities still operate in silos. If you try and make these decisions in silos, if you're not operating with a centralized thought process, these things [IoT sensors] don't talk to each other," Satyam said.

5. Pin down financing

A major concern for city leaders is how they can afford smart technology. It might not be possible to reallocate funding for a new project, and it can take months, if not years, to get approval for new funding within a municipality.

To assist cities with this need, the White House announced in late September that it would make an investment of $80 million for smart cities, expanding upon an initiative that began in September 2015. This includes $15 million to improve energy efficiency through data gathering, $15 million for research in improving transportation, and $10 million for natural disaster response programs.

The National Science Foundation is allocating $60 million in new funding for its Smart Cities Initiative. This funding will cover a research task force seeking solutions for cities, expanding internet architecture within cities, transportation efficiency, health research, and networked computer systems.

Although following these steps will help make the process toward becoming a smart city easier, even the best planning always has flaws. "You never get it right the first time," Piva said.

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