Rather than technology driving smart city projects, today’s efforts focus on outcomes and ecosystems.
The term “smart cities” arose in the 1990s and has broadly referred to an urban area that uses information and communication technologies to increase operational efficiency. And like the technology involved, the specifics of how to do that – and how to measure the success and value of “smart” implementations – have evolved.
In the beginning, cities often started with a technology, a platform and the goal of gaining knowledge, whether that was on vehicle traffic, congestion or crime. Once data was collected, the work started, said Bettina Tratz-Ryan, a vice president at Gartner who studies smart cities.
Today, cities use an outcome-based lens, “where the objective … focuses on quality of life and sustainability and economic development” she said. “What it does is it takes the technology out of the driver’s seat and makes technology an enabler.”
For instance, whereas before cities might use technology to reduce traffic congestion in one area and call the project a success, now they consider how that single effort can scale to other applications, other parts of the city or even beyond.
That’s the approach Arlington County, Virginia, has taken with National Landing, a new neighborhood that’s home to Amazon’s HQ2 and where Virginia Tech will locate its $1 billion Innovation Campus. Underlying its development – quite literally – is a fiber-optic network called ConnectArlington that the county laid years ago mainly for government agencies’ use, but that now serves as a foundation for industry, higher education and public innovation.
“It’s really an ecosystem we’re trying to create, and an ecosystem is such that you want to create an environment where people want to play, learn, work and feel safe,” said Jack Belcher, then the county’s chief information officer, who has since been appointed chief innovation technology officer working out of the county manager's office. “The whole idea of ‘smart’ really comes from how you can provide the services you need, [that] the government needs too, to the community in a proactive manner.”
The three pillars he uses to frame the smart approach are will, connectivity and people. There needs to be government willingness to create the environment, the technology to enable it and support from stakeholders in all sectors.
“It’s really trying to get the thought leaders in the community and the residents to understand the investments that we’re making and that it’s not a misuse of their money – [that] what we’re trying to do is make life better,” Belcher said.
Of course, technology is still a major player. Tools that are particularly in demand today include private 5G, 5G in general, digital twins and location-based analytics, Tratz-Ryan said. “We’re seeing a lot of simulation techniques specific to sustainable biodiversity in cities,” she added, pointing to air quality-monitoring efforts in Las Vegas, Seattle, New York City and Chicago.
In Arlington, Belcher has his eye on how existing technology can support what’s next. “The era of quantum computing is coming on, artificial intelligence, internet of things – these all require extremely high-bandwidth capabilities that have low latency,” he said. “We’re putting more and more stuff on the internet and it’s going to slow down, so what we need to do is consider how to leverage connectivity to have computer power close to where the data they’re collecting is. We call that edge computing.”
The most immediate challenge to smart development is privacy concerns. City residents want to know what data about them is collected and how it will be used.
“Cities need to think about what they want before they’re in the middle of [a request for proposals] or a project,” said Ryan Merkley, managing director of Aspen Digital. “They need to have conversations with their citizens, and they need to pass policies that make it clear what’s allowed and what’s not and the ways in which they’re going to protect the public – how data is managed or sold or not sold, where it’s acquired from…. They need to be, I think, radically transparent with the public about what they’re doing from end to end.”
The lack of trust about how Google would use data was a main factor in the failure of Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project, which Merkley was a civic adviser for. The company assumed it had the public’s trust and it didn’t.
By contrast, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh launched Imagine Boston 2030 using direct resident interviews and a media blitz, which got the public engaged in how to develop the city in a smart way, Tratz-Ryan said.
The fact is, there will always be tension between benefits and challenges when it comes to smart cities, but they don’t have to be in conflict, Merkley said.
“What cities want to be doing is finding ways to use technology to make the city a better place to be for everybody,” he said. “It would be sad if we missed the opportunity to design new things and be innovative and creative at the civic level because we were afraid to try stuff. I think there’s still real opportunities to do fun things and to do clever and inspiring things for cities.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.
This story was updated Aug. 22 to add Jack Belcher's new title.