Tech disruption powers smart city expansion
Cloud, inexpensive sensors and low-powered wide-area networks are giving smaller cities a way to build real solutions for both staff and residents.
Connectivity is the foundational layer of every smart city project, but disruptive technology in the form of cloud and the internet of things (IoT) is driving development, a new report states.
“Earlier, a city might have had to invest maybe hundreds of millions of dollars to lay down an optical fiber network to connect everything up, but now with cloud technology [and] IoT, it’s much simpler,” said Avishar Dutta, mobility senior research analyst at Frost & Sullivan and author of “Smart City Solutions Growth Opportunities,” published last month.
More specifically, IoT combined with low-powered wide-area networks, which “does not require an expensive spectrum and can cover a large area with one base station,” the report states, have simplified connectivity, allowing cities to use smaller-scale solutions, rather than broad ones.
Between now and 2035, the report predicts significant growth in investments to upgrade telecommunications networks to 5G and in sensors, especially as manufacturers create smaller, cheaper, lower-power devices that can connect more objects to a smart city network. Data that smart city platforms generate and store will drive investment in emerging technologies such as digital modeling and predictive analytics, but the report states that the growth will be slower.
An important use case for cities to become smart is environmental benefits. “The role of government here is to create this common platform where all these transportation solutions can share that data,” Dutta said, referring to information from bikeshares, carshares and traffic. “It also works in the same way for utilities like sewage, waste management, electricity, where again, all the data is collected, put into a common platform where the citizens can access it.”
The report also identifies growth restraints, such as data privacy concerns. “A lot of smart cities platforms depend on information sharing, and a lot of it is personal data,” Dutta said. “The role of the government here is to definitely be the regulator so that everyone follows the certain security protocol standards.”
Another restraint is cost, especially in smaller, rural places, where the cost of installing a comprehensive smart city solution may be prohibitive, the report states. Providers of smart city solutions have historically focused on big cities, but rural areas can benefit from them, too—if they have connectivity, Dutta said. “Technology providers have realized that there’s no big market in the rural areas, because the rural areas often suffer from bad broadband connection or it’s not feasible to hook up houses to the internet or create large data banks for small towns,” he said.
Although San Antonio is decidedly not a small city, ranking second behind Dallas as Texas’s most populated, officials there made information sharing a foundation of its smart city planning. Next month, the Office of Innovation will release the Smart City Roadmap, a strategic plan.
To create it, the city surveyed and interviewed workers at 40 departments about their concerns. Three main issues stood out. The first is data—specifically, more support for it, better ability to find and access it, and more effective use of it, said Emily Royall, San Antonio’s smart city administrator.
Second was business operations, including using IT and emerging technology to improve public services—“thinking about digital platforms, case management systems, the interoperability of all of these tools within the city, digital literacy for our city employees to be able to make the most effective use of these tools,” Royall said.
Third was resident engagement in general and reaching underserved populations specifically.
The office also received responses from more than 2,200 residents about their priorities. Five emerged: better access to real-time public information, safe infrastructure, access to transportation, environmental quality and public safety.
“Our challenge now is to design, deliver and scope out projects that can help address some of those needs and challenges, and we’re calling that our Smart and Connected Community Testbed,” Royall said. A forthcoming website will enable vendors to pitch ideas for testing to the Office of Innovation directly.
“We also have a project bank that we’re basically now scoping, figuring out how to prioritize projects that have already been raised to us through all the stakeholder engagement we’ve already done,” she added. “Those will be probably our first projects to launch the testbed.”
The idea of smart cities isn’t new, Royall said, adding that they go back 15 years. What’s changing is the idea of embracing all technology to thinking critically about how to use technology to solve real problems.
“In our community, we’ve learned that technology for technology’s sake, doesn’t work,” Royall said. “We have to filter all of the cool, shiny technology that’s out there by the use cases that we’re going to continue to work with our residents and the departments to define."
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.