“Moving the Needle” on Smart Cities

By Joyce Deuley

Last week, I attended the Smart Cities Innovation Summit in Austin. Much like last month's Big Communications Event (BCE) did for telecom space, it demonstrated the industry's shift beyond the hype cycle and onto the concrete realities of IoT.

The sessions at the Innovation Summit were informative and attempted to grapple with the nitty-gritty of how the Tech sector and government are going to work together to make smart cities happen. We have been stuck for so long on the potentials of IoT, it is good to see these kinds of discussions happen. Though now, I’m afraid, we are going to be stuck on the “how” for quite some time. The “how” discussions, however, are in the relatively early stages, but three constant themes at the Innovations Summit were sustainability, interoperability, and funding.

Sustainability

Owing to a recent UN prediction that more than 9.7 billion people are expected to be living in cities by 2050, urbanization has become one of the biggest concerns for municipalities. Because of this, cities are struggling to put systems in place that will be able to handle the influx of people. Improving urban mobility is at the top of the list, as are utility management and distribution, smart street lighting, and smart building solutions.

However, sustainability isn’t just referring to mitigating stress on city systems due to population increases. From a technology standpoint, the public sector is struggling to determine what types of solutions they’d like to deploy that will last over the next decade or so. But, given that the transition from legacy infrastructure is, in itself, a big shift and that most departments in government are siloed, the IoT industry is still maturing. As we move towards consolidation and standardization, agencies will be able to better determine the technologies and solutions that will provide them with long-term sustainability and, ultimately, scalability as city populations increase.

Interoperability

Interoperability of various systems within a city is the golden key that will unlock the true potential of the Smart City. Having a bunch of connected systems isn’t enough on its own. Instead, it’s the sum of all parts that will transform our current municipalities into the efficiency-havens we are all dreaming of. The benefits of the Smart City will spill over into social aspects of a community, as well, in terms of improved access to education, healthcare, and jobs. The trick is figuring out not just how systems will be connected, but how we are going to manage the data that is collected, and the day-to-day operations, as well.

While connecting disparate infrastructure systems is crucial to developing a successful smart city, connecting disparate departments is also key. Unfortunately, this will require a massive culture shift within government. It requires embracing interdepartmental and community transparency in order to unify the municipality’s smart city goals and then actually execute them.

In an example of how departments in the public sector are heavily siloed, one panelist stated that there were about 54 different departments in her city government, and it was nearly impossible to know which had already begun their own foray into IoT and who hadn’t. Additionally, many departments can be territorial about their processes and data, making it even more difficult for city governments to work cohesively, overall. The public sector will have to start breaking down some walls in order to make it all happen.

Now for the question we’ve all been waiting for:

Who’s Going to Pay for It?

I need to congratulate the City of Austin representatives who really took this question head on. Austin had recently applied for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Grant to improve urban mobility, particularly in the city’s underserved areas. Austin had a one-in-six chance to win $50 million in funding to connect and transform its transformation system. But, as of yesterday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that Columbus, OH took home the prize. In addition to the $50 million put up by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Vulcan, Inc., the city also walked away with an additional $90 million pledged by local businesses to aid in smart city efforts.

Besides discussing the grant, the Austin representatives mentioned several potential revenue streams for the city surrounding the collection of community data. It was repeatedly stressed that the citizens of Austin did not sign up to sell their data to businesses, but with that being said, the City of Austin did say it is trying to determine how best to get value from the data they would ultimately be collecting, anyway. One way to do so would be to create some form of data exchange, much like what is occurring in Copenhagen, as an innovative big data marketplace.

Other than government funding and creating new revenue streams, cities are struggling to determine who is going to cover the massive costs associated with retrofitting legacy infrastructure. One steady line of thought has been to treat these massive costs as a large, but lucrative investment, which could be won back through future cost-savings. However, as one of the conference panelists pointed out, utilities and governments would be forced to find new sources of revenue once those cost-savings eventually and—inevitably—leveled off.

In the End

While we are still in the nascent stages of actually implementing and deploying smart city systems, there are definitely some wins for the IoT ecosystem. In particular, we have pulled the dusty, old “moving the needle on this” off of the shelf and are breathing new life into it. Though ultimately void of any real, contextual meaning, our new mantra implies to our transition from future benefits of IoT and smart city solutions and onto the “how’s it gonna look” stage. The real kicker is that no one knows quite yet; like many things in life, we and the needle will just have to wait and see.