Photo of someone using a smartphone with city skyline in the background

Smart Cities: Tech Innovations Drive Change Across All Operations

6 Nov 2015 by Susie Steckner

Technology is constantly evolving — not unlike a living organism. It isn’t static. It isn’t constant. That makes it disruptive. Businesses, even niche businesses, often forget to, or choose not to, evolve with technology and are turned upside down — because their products, their policies, their customer interface becomes, simply put, outdated. We live in a consumer-driven world, and we are often drawn to technology everything — from convenience to novelty. This is Insight’s Disruptive Technology series. We will be addressing how technology enters an industry and does exactly that — disrupts.

Budget-friendly LED street lights. Convenient online city-permitting services. Downtown parking apps that reduce congestion. Smartphone payment systems for bus riders. Energy-conserving smart grids.

Around the globe, more and more cities are embedding digital technology across all city functions and dramatically changing the way they operate.

These “smart cities” are propelled by the critical need to build sustainability. But they are also driven by the need to boost economic development, streamline operations, enhance public safety and improve civic engagement. Experts say the smart-city movement will see substantial growth in the coming years and decades.

“New cities will be built, and existing ones will be retrofitted to create economic development and improve the lives of citizens,” according to the Smart Cities Council. Among the market expectations:

  • Smart-cities technology is an $8.1 billion market today and, in five years, the market will grow to almost five times that size, reaching $39.5 billion.
  • Investment in smart-city technology infrastructure will total $108 billion during the decade from 2010 to 2020.

Earlier this year, the smart-cities movement got a boost when the White House announced a new “Smart Cities” Initiative. The effort calls for investing more than $160 million in federal research and leveraging two dozen new technology collaborations to help local communities tackle a host of challenges: traffic congestion, crime, economic growth, city services and more.

Smart moves

Cities are making smart shifts across the board, focusing on everything from energy and water, to mobility to information and telecommunications systems. In some cases, cities have developed sweeping initiatives; in others, they have created simple text messaging solutions. Either way, cities say they are realizing myriad benefits from their efforts:

  • Over the past several years, Los Angeles has replaced more than 140,000 existing streetlight fixtures with LED units. Energy use has been reduced by 63%,  and carbon emissions have been reduced by more than 47,000 metric tons a year. In addition to this impact, the city says the lighting program has made the city safer and more pedestrian-friendly at night.
  • Atlanta’s Marta See & Say app allows public transit users to alert police to any safety issues on the spot. They can also connect with Marta police via text.
  • Portland is banking on turbine technology to generate a new source of power. The city’s water bureau, local utility PGE and startup Lucid Energy have teamed up to turn water flowing through pipes into clean, low-cost electricity for homes. Officials estimate that the new system can generate enough electricity for 150 homes.
  • The city of Cambridge is partnering with Soofa Benches to install smart urban furniture at high-traffic locations around the city. The reinvented benches are solar powered, allowing people to charge devices while staying outdoors.
  • Chicago is planning to install data-collection sensors along its heavily traveled Michigan Avenue to observe conditions like air quality, weather conditions and pedestrian traffic. The data could be important in a variety of ways, from bolstering research to making city services more effective.

Crowdsourcing changes

Cities are harnessing the power of crowdsourcing and social media to find bright new ideas for community projects and to streamline city operations.

Whether reinvigorating a sprawling former shopping mall in Connecticut or reusing a parking lot in Alabama, officials are backing crowdsourced placemaking as a way to reimagine sites big and small. Boston has seen several successes by crowdsourcing city projects, from rethinking small public spaces like a pocket park or city hall lobby, to hosting a two-day hackathon to help streamline city processes like permitting. Earlier this year, the city again turned to crowdsourcing for ideas on revamping its City Hall Plaza.

In San Jose, a councilman is leveraging technology to connect in real time with residents about neighborhood blight or safety hazards. Residents can download the San Jose Mobile City Hall app and report minor concerns like a pothole or illegal dumping. The goal: fix small problems before they become big ones. 

This year, Austin officials formed a public-private partnership with Metropia to keep traffic moving during the huge South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Using Metropia’s traffic app, officials worked to disseminate real-time information on traffic jams, detours, road closures and more via Twitter. The plan relied on crowdsourcing in addition to traditional traffic monitoring methods.

Beyond urban amenities

Smart initiatives are stretching well beyond city services. Amsterdam made headlines earlier this year with The Things Network, which crowdsourced an entire citywide Internet of Things data network for six weeks this summer. The goal was to connect a wide variety of devices across the city.

The network is based on Low Power Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN ) technology and has already been used to build an alert system for boats that are taking on water. Owners receive a text message about the situation and reply back to have a company clear the boat.

Other hoped-for uses run the gamut, from tracking items that are loaned through a sharing service to attaching a device on a bike and using an app to help locate it.

The Things Network is now launching a global campaign that has garnered interest from Boston to Buenos Aires.

Hurdles ahead

Experts say financial challenges top the list of what is keeping smart-city projects from moving forward, according to the Smart Cities Council. But they also point to a long list of other issues that are standing in the way:

  • Fear of change
  • Fear of failure
  • Ignorance
  • Silos and competition
  • Social acceptance of new technologies
  • Political disconnects
  • Lack of visionary leaders

“Many cities/municipalities/agencies say they are innovative and willing to embrace new technologies, but they want someone to take the risk and do it first,” David Leingang, sales and business development manager for a traffic solutions company, told the council.

And while some cities are dipping their municipal toes into the smart-city movement by starting a range of projects, they are not fully invested in a smart-city strategic program, Uri Ben-Ari, managing partner of a smart-city consulting division for an Israel company, also told the council.

"The biggest blocker is the mayors' lack of knowledge and understanding of smart-city terminology, solutions and how to conduct it," he says. "Once they better understand that this kind of a project is strategic and vision-driven, and once they understand that financing is available by PPP (public/private partnership) or BOT (build operate transfer) options, they will conduct it by planning first, technology second — and therefore, they will experience more success."