Following cycles of hype and disenchantment, the topic of smart cities is re-surfacing. It promises to solve environmental, transportation and sustainability goals while improving the quality of city living. However, not everything is plain sailing. There is much to learn from earlier attempts that focused on pilot or single use-case projects. In many of those instances, little effort went into long-term planning. How would one use case expand to many? What kinds of continuous funding frameworks could sustain on-going operations?
In general, the pressure to deliver quick results in a ‘quick-fix’ mindset. This does not work because smart city infrastructure is a multi-decade undertaking. It sits alongside urban-transport networks, energy distribution systems and sewers.
Over recent years, many smart city projects stalled. They often began with smart streetlights or community Wi-Fi networks. A case in point is the attention-grabbing news story about New Orleans’ smart city plans. There, a single-vendor, single use-case approach came unstuck. This was partly due to questionable procurement processes and single-vendor solution choices. Was this avoidable?
Context for Proper Planning
It can be tempting to begin a smart city project around hard infrastructure. This might be a municipal fibre ring or a mesh network of Wi-Fi hotpots. It could also involve a network of smart lights or CCTV monitors. This does not go far enough because smart city services will rely on data. That leads to better decision making in managing city resources and an ever-expanding set of citizen services. There will obviously be greater use of sensors. Miniaturization and energy-harvesting will lead to sensors embedded in roads and bridges. There will be requirements for industrial-scale data collection as well as software platforms for remote monitoring and control. Think of these new requirements as a progression from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ infrastructure.
The progression extends even further to data infrastructure. This is another kind of “soft” infrastructure. It would support data sharing, between public and private sector bodies, within an agreed policy framework. Policies for data privacy and security are obviously fundamental. Over time, additional policies will include data-supply and licensing guarantees. These would allow resource managers to control down-stream usage and monetization rights. Data provenance tracking promises to become another requirement in the future. This is due to explainability and accountability in smart city decision-making.
It is not essential to detail or fund these requirements from the outset of a smart city initiative. If ignored, the initiative is likely to founder within a matter of years and fail the multi-decade infrastructure test.
Look Beyond Technology to Change-Management Infrastructure
A good planning framework and a directional roadmap are essential elements of a smart city initiative. It is important to balance the historical preference for vertical solutions, which solve a pressing problem, with a horizontal approach. That means building a handful of general purpose, and re-usable, capabilities. These make it easier to support many applications. This strategy adds leverage to developer teams. It also reduces the risk of spreading technical experts too thinly across multiple vertical systems and integration activities. In effect, this is what a standard accomplishes.
Mandating open standards during the procurement process adds another layer of benefits. It fosters competitive bidding and lowers the risk of technology- and vendor lock-in. That is one lesson for New Orleans.
Open standards also mean that a smart city system can grow over time. Take a waste collection example involving different kinds of collection bins. These might vary in size, depending on location and usage patterns. A city planner has to place bins near take-out restaurants, in public spaces, and low-traffic streets. The use of an open standard would allow a city to source waste bins from different providers. It would also allow city to stagger its roll out over time, responding to changing waste collection patterns and funding availability.
While technology innovation deals with the supply side of the smart city challenge, demand side issues deserve equal attention. In the past, operational staff would wait for weekly or monthly data summaries about city assets. With IoT capabilities, they can monitor and control city assets in real time. This changes the nature of their work. That makes change management and re-skilling necessary complements to all smart city initiatives.
It is also important to include executives and financial managers in this process. Their involvement is critical to embracing the ‘hard-to-soft’ infrastructure roadmap. They are, after all, responsible for funding for future deployments and running costs. That is an important reason to frame the path to new use cases in the language of city administrators. It is also a reason to emphasise long-term rule and adaptable infrastructure over quick-fix projects.