2020: The year of reckoning for smart cities

It looks like 2020 will be a year of reckoning for buzzword-bingo digital technologies. For some time, U.S. citizens have been promised that their tax dollars were being invested in artificial intelligence and machine learning platforms that would make their lives easier. After nearly a decade of broken promises, the public isn’t going along with it anymore.

In this “always-on” age, city residents are demanding more efficient digital services. They expect public agencies to act more like consumer brands and have become less tolerant of service disruptions. But with every step cities take toward digital transformation, the threat of disruptions -- from cybersecurity attacks to natural disasters -- increases.

The balancing act for cities in 2020 is to recognize all the risks of disruption caused by digitalization and continue their own digital transformation -- all while the global economy is slowing and investment is getting harder to come by. The answer lies in using technology to make better, more educated decisions about the future while increasing transparency and communication.

Threats and disruptions

With every bus line that gets electrified and every neighborhood that gets Wi-Fi, the opportunity for disruption grows. Natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes can take out multiple services in one fell swoop. But slower trends, like population growth or a particularly rainy season that leads to heavy vegetation, can also burden systems to the point of an outage.

And then there is the human element. One misguided click could lead to a massive breach of residents’ data or to a city's 911 system being held hostage by ransomware. Since 2018, ransomware attacks have shuttered city governments from Atlanta (a successful attack by two Iranian hackers and a good example of how geo-politics can affect cities) to Baltimore to 22 towns in Texas. Some of these attacks shut down mission-critical services like the court system and law enforcement.

That costly trend is only going to grow in 2020. Lloyds estimates that New York City could face over $2.3 billion in cyber-related losses this year. But even more concerning is the possibility of a loss of life, which hasn’t happened yet, but could be on the horizon.

As threats increase and the global economy slows, cities will have to narrow their priorities in 2020. With these competing demands, what is really going to move the needle for smart cities and where should they prioritize their investments?

Simulations for a smarter tomorrow

Time to value is more important than ever when it comes to smart city investment strategies. Products that help cities simulate, prepare for and mitigate future threats are key.

Cities need the ability to forecast conditions a year, five years and even further out so they can best use their resources today for a smarter tomorrow. That’s the kind of runway municipalities need to make broad changes such as fortifying the grid or developing an extensive vegetation management program. Organizing labor and capital for massive projects like those takes more than one season. Digital transformation tools, particularly the internet of things, give cities more data to make more informed decisions about the future to prevent disruption and mitigate threats. 

Data must be collected from as many sources as possible, which requires more than one product. Think of it like a mosaic. Cities must mix and match solutions that analyze different data to get a full picture. Sometimes they invest in one or two, but that’s not enough to get actionable information. Statistics-based prognostic capabilities are the key driver -- that’s how to get the best holistic picture of what’s going to happen.

Cities should also invest in services and solutions with industry-specific expertise. These will provide the best understanding of the challenges and dynamics of how systems work and deliver the most accurate forecasting to drive smarter decision-making. 

Communication conquers the “unknown unknown”

No matter how much data-driven simulating and forecasting is done, there is always the “unknown unknown.” So how do smart cities use digital transformation to protect themselves from blowback from the public when the inevitable, unforeseeable disruption occurs? Communication.

East Coast utilities have been fined for their handling of hurricane damage -- not because of the response time or length of outages, but because they didn’t have the level of communication that their customer base demanded. The proper use of the right digital tools would have helped, such as a text message alerting users to an updated system and/or a responsive presence on social media to answer customer questions. Talking to people on the platforms they use about the steps being taken to manage a crisis and offering the best estimates of service restoration goes a long way. Even if repairs are not happening right in front of residents, they still want to know that officials are working on it. Communication and transparency are key.

Working together to solve shared challenges

This will be the year the public’s expectations bring back an appreciation for expertise. Cities will see more threats because of their modernization efforts but will also have the opportunity to mitigate damage with digital technology.

The most important lesson is that these threats are not unique. Every city struggles to balance the pros and cons of digital transformation and faces the same natural and human threats. No city exists in a silo.

The smartest cities will band together to meet these challenges with investments and shared best practices in cybersecurity, long-term predictive simulation and transparent communication inside and outside city limits. The more open and transparent vendors, utilities, telecoms and other industries that make up the modern city infrastructure are with each other, the easier and safer all our ecosystems will be.

About the Author

Bryan Friehauf is global head of enterprise software at ABB.


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