How is smart city technology implemented and scaled? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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How is smart city technology implemented and scaled?

In honor of Infrastructure Week, Research Assistant Sawyer Middeleer explores smart infrastructure—the role of big data and networked connectivity for mobility, climate resilience, citizen engagement and service delivery in Chicago.

Karl Turkel

CityPost kiosks in Louisville, Kentucky allow people to access public WiFi, get information about the city and receive emergency alerts

The pace of urban innovation is accelerating and municipalities large and small are trying to stay ahead of the curve. By far the most substantial challenge facing innovative cities today is how to turn their ideas into reality. University researchers and private firms develop new smart cities technology all the time. However, when cities scale from tactical pilot projects to strategic regional implementation common problems arise: It’s hard to get the other agencies on board. We don’t have the staff capacity. There’s just no money available.

New data storage and data sharing techniques are inspiring municipal leaders to double down on developing innovative models for cross-sector and cross-jurisdiction collaboration.

In many circumstances, solutions come from multiple sectors collaborating in partnership to solve technology, financing and governance issues. These partnerships might include city or regional government, community organizations, research universities, technology companies, utility companies, telecommunications companies, non-profits and engineering companies in various combinations or all at once. Such arrangements are particularly well-suited to meeting the technical requirements of these projects while managing the risks associated with making large investments in unproven technologies. 

I traveled to Kansas City for the Smart Cities Connect conference in March, where I saw first-hand how these partnerships can work. The city government partnered with Sprint, Cisco and a dozen other companies to deploy a public Wi-Fi network, environmental sensors and data management systems focused around a 2.2-mile streetcar line downtown—a kind of transit-oriented smart development. Sprint constructed and operates the network using Cisco’s technology, while the city pays nearly nothing out of pocket except for future operating expenses. In exchange for shouldering much of the risk and providing free services to residents, the private sector partners receive hassle-free permits to build out and test their platforms using Kansas City infrastructure and can collect data from users.

Like this example in Kansas City, nearly every effort to implement next-generation infrastructure highlighted at the conference was facilitated largely through public-private partnerships. A public-private partnership, or P3, is an arrangement through which public institutions, such as a city government, join up with private partners, such as a telecommunications company, to build and operate a public project. The private entity typically shoulders most of the risk on behalf of the partnership, but in return, can make a profit through operation of the service.

Yet for every Chicago or San Francisco that attracts blockbuster partnerships to deploy thousands of IoT devices, the smart sensors and meters that I introduce at greater length in the first article of this series, there are many smaller municipalities that cannot afford to invest in the fiber optic cable assets, cloud storage and cyber security tools necessary to support a smart city. At Smart Cities Connect, the new CIO of Aurora, IL, Michael Pegues, represented the Chicago suburb of over 200,000 people on a plenary panel and explained that service-sharing partnerships are vital to smaller municipalities that can’t afford their own high speed broadband assets. Pegues described his plan to monetize the large investment Aurora made in in fiber optics cables, while increasing broadband capacity in the Northeastern Illinois region by sharing its broadband service with neighboring municipalities.

Indeed, as many speakers reminded the audience, small municipalities that hope to be competitive will need to develop strategies around smart cities governance, financing and risk management. Innovations in smart cities technology open up new opportunities for infrastructure financing, but there are also some thorny challenges. Many experts at the conference were optimistic about how most smart infrastructure could pay for itself through cost savings, but access to capital remains an issue. On the other hand, cities may also be able to monetize the data they collect from residents’ interactions with public services in the same way that credit card companies and social networks do. For instance, a city transportation agency might soon sell transit ridership data to companies or cities that want to know how people move in real time.

The City of Chicago's digital transparency has made it possible for a diverse range of organizations, such as UI Labs and Chi Hack Night to engage in next-generation business incubation and policy advocacy.

However, the opportunities for partnership in smart cities are not limited to hard infrastructure construction and operation; in fact, the reality appears to be quite the contrary. New data storage and data sharing techniques are inspiring municipal leaders to double down on developing innovative models for cross-sector and cross-jurisdiction collaboration.

One such model is the open data ecosystem cultivated by Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology, which multiple speakers at the Smart Cities Connect conference praised. DoIT’s Data Portal, launched in 2012, aggregates data from many city agencies and transmits it to the public. Not only does this allow city offices to collaborate better through data sharing, it seeds an ecosystem in which civic tech companies and projects grow and thrive. Many startups in Chicago use data from the Data Portal, such as Chicago Cityscape, which maps new development permits in the city. Moreover, the City’s digital transparency has made it possible for a diverse range of organizations, such as UI Labs and Chi Hack Night to engage in next-generation business incubation and policy advocacy.

However, when it comes to financing and planning for smart city pilots at the community level, experts I spoke to at the conference admitted they had a lot to learn. Many smart cities practitioners are in the position of trying to introduce abstruse new technologies to a room of suspicious residents, and often receive pushback on tools that appear invasive or harmful. Luckily, the field does recognize that the most successful outcomes are realized when community priorities drive project planning and implementation.

In my final post, I’ll highlight some ways that policymakers and industry leaders are working hard to develop best practices to help smart cities grow sustainably and equitably.

Sawyer Middeleer is a research assistant at Metropolitan Planning Council and a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

Learn more about smart infrastructure:

"What is a smart city?" by Sawyer Middeleer

"Why should we act now toward incorporating and managing Smart City technology?" by Sawyer Middeleer


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