Kansas city

Funding, fiber, cyber: A recipe for smarter cities

For cities across the country to embrace smart technology, the federal government will have to help make that happen, according to experts on a Digitizing Infrastructure panel hosted by The Hill.

Brian Pallasch, the managing director for government relations and infrastructure initiatives at the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the federal government must be a better partner for state and local governments on the smart technology issue.

“The reality is the federal government has not come to table with enough money for about a generation of infrastructure building,” Pallasch said. “So it’s about time for the federal government to step up and spend a little bit more.”

But fixing the country’s infrastructure is no longer just about pouring concrete, according to Kansas City, Mo., CIO Bob Bennett. The nation’s infrastructure must continue to be digitized. One way to prioritize that is ensure any local project in the next infrastructure bill should include the word “smart,” he said.

Some federal agencies are helping with these efforts already. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, has been working to create standards that will allow cities to “play on the same playing field in terms of what data we’re going to collect at the micro level, so industry can come to us with sensors or technologies that apply not just to Kansas City, but to also to other cities,” Bennett said.

And the Department of Transportation's 2016 Smart City Challenge fueled the momentum for cites that aimed to integrate innovative technologies -- self-driving cars, connected vehicles and smart sensors -- into their infrastructure.

A recent report from the Center for Data Innovation suggested ways in which national governments can support smart city growth. Besides funding programs and setting standards, the report pointed to research opportunities and regulations that encourage data sharing.

At the end of the day, though, these projects are local efforts, and cities are responsible for getting their residents onboard.

Franco Amalfi, the director of strategic government programs at Oracle Public Sector North America, said this means ensuring cities have transparent privacy policies. Citizens want to know what data is being collected and how it will benefit the community.

Digital infrastructure projects aren’t guaranteed to take off even if more federal funds flow to the local level and citizens sign on. The best way to get them done? Public/private partnerships, Bennett said.

Companies like Cisco and Sprint provided millions in initial funding for efforts in Kansas City In exchange for access the city’s fiber. Most cities also can charge companies for access to their utility poles and lamp posts, he said.

Broadband is critical to bringing smart city tech to more localities. Bennett said the federal government could lay fiber anytime it's doing work on interstates or railways and provide local governments access.

Public/private partnerships also can help with the expensive issue of updating technology.

“An interesting thing for the industry to tackle collectively is interoperability and upgrades that can be driven more by software upgrades as opposed to hardware upgrades,” said David Wilson, Bechtel's chief innovation officer.

In Kansas City, that’s something the private-sector partners handle. “Sprint owns and operates the network, so they are responsible for the maintenance,” Bennett said.

A PPP also allows for a city with a small IT staff, like Kansas City, to benefit from a 24-hour cybersecurity staff that Cisco has, Bennett said. “That gives me a little bit more happiness,” he added.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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