U.S. Cities Need the Private Sector’s Help Cutting Red Tape Off Smart-City Initiatives

By Laetitia Gazel Anthoine

There are enormous growth opportunities for companies able to help cities break down barriers and establish best practices for the use of IoT technologies.

The National League of Cities (NLC) recently released its "Trends in Smart City Development" report that analyzes the progress five cities (four in the United States) have made in implementing smart-city technologies and services. The report paints an exciting picture of what the near future holds. The question now is how to turn those visions into reality. While these cities have the necessary foundations in place, they're lagging behind many others worldwide. These cities are already leveraging data collection and analysis to make clever uses of IoT technologies, and can serve as blueprints for American government officials and their private-sector partners.

The NLC report, which is available free of charge here, states smart-city initiatives must comprise three components to be successful:

1. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) that generate and aggregate data
2. Analytical tools which convert that data into usable information, and organizational structures that encourage collaboration and innovation
3. The application of that information to solve public problems

The NLC states that meeting these three criteria will enable cities to more quickly and effectively roll out technologies and services that will transform how people live, work and interact with one another.

For example, autonomous cars could turn traffic lights and congestion into just bad memories. Greater usage of shared vehicles—whether they're autonomous or not—will enable us to stop fighting about limited numbers of parking spaces on streets or below buildings or on streets. That will free up city planners to reclaim land for citizens by allowing developers to reduce the costs of buildings, since parking garages will become an unnecessary expense.

Security protocols like facial-recognition solutions would enhance security at buildings, schools, airports and other public spaces.

The NLC report focuses on the smart-city initiatives of Philadelphia, Penn.; San Francisco, Calif.; Chicago, Ill.; Charlotte, N.C.; and New Delhi, India. All meet the first of the NLC's three requirements for a smart city: implementing ICTs that generate and aggregate data.

For example, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 signed the city's open data policy, establishing an open data platform and mandated cross-functional collaboration. That enables the city to collaborate with universities and businesses on sensor projects like the Array of Things, which aims to collect and disseminate real-time data. The city created a network of sensors mounted on street light and traffic signal poles to measure temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient, sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature. Forty-two of these sensors were installed last year, with the goal of deploying 500 by the end of 2018.

The cities in the NLC report are not alone. New York City's LinkNYC project created a 21st-century communications network by replacing more than 7,500 pay phones with high-speed Wi-Fi hotspots equipped with a tablet and charging stations that provide fast and free public Wi-Fi access, free phone calls via the tablet's Vonage app, and device charging.

The list of cities that have laid down the necessary digital foundation for collecting and analyzing continues to grow, with no signs of slowing. Look no further than the nearly 80 impressive proposals submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge last year.

Many cities have already launched pilot programs to explore how to couple the data they're collecting with smart technologies to connect their infrastructures—everything from the water supply, sanitation, transportation and power grid—to the Internet. The trouble is, moving on from those pilot programs to city-wide rollout too often stalls when the evaluation process becomes bogged down and stuck to red tape.

Consider San Francisco's SFPark project, launched in 2011 to leverage real-time data to show up-to-the-second availability of parking spaces. The goal is to reduce traffic by helping drivers find parking spaces more quickly and reduce traffic congestion. New parking meters that accept payment by credit and debit cards or a phone app should reduce frustration (and parking tickets).

The city installed 6,000 metered parking spaces on the streets—about 25 percent of the total number of spaces city-wide, and an additional 12,250 spaces in city-owned parking garages, more than 12,000 spaces of all the spaces the city.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and U.S DOT ended the pilot program in 2014 and declared it a success. Yet in the two years since, the program has not undergone any significant expansion, and the "Featured News" section on the homepage of the SFPark website has not been updated since December 2013.

As American cities slog through pilot programs and implement new technologies on a piecemeal basis, many of their European and Asian counterparts have already made substantial progress in incorporating all three of the NLC's requirements of a smart city, including the final step—"the application of information to solve public problems."

The routine process of collecting garbage is an excellent example. You may have seen so-called smart trash and recycling bins in airports on city streets that compost waste automatically. Companies like Compology are developing trash receptacles equipped with sensors that analyze their contents. When they're full, they communicate with the trash-collection companies. This prevents truck drivers from wasting time and gas by picking up half-full dumpsters. Compology reports that using intelligent trashcans can help haulers be more efficient and reduce their annual costs by up to 40 percent.

Sounds futuristic, doesn't it? That is, until you realize that the city of Amsterdam has already implemented such a program.

More than 2,000 garbage cans and dozens of public toilets in downtown Amsterdam were equipped with an RFID chip that communicates with municipal employees via a mobile app. Street cleaning teams scan the RFID chips with mobile devices to record the condition of trash and recycling containers, and log what work they've performed. That information provides municipal officials with real-time, detailed updates on every single container and whether it needs to be cleaned or serviced immediately, tomorrow or next week.

As a result, the city now maintains and regularly updates an emptying and maintenance schedule. They know which garbage cans require servicing several times a day, and how increased foot or vehicle traffic to specific areas will impact that schedule. This ensures all cleaning and maintenance work is done on demand and in budget. (Source: Deutsche Telekom.)

That's just one example of the remarkable progress scities around the world have made. In fact, 60 percent of the cities on Juniper Research's 2016 Smart City Rankings are based in Europe. Although Juniper awarded the top spot to Singapore, citing its status as a world leader in applying smart mobility policies and technology, Juniper also cites the city's fixed and cellular broadband services, city apps and strong open data policy.

"Congestion and mobility are almost universal issues for cities to address," Juniper's Steffen Sorrell stated in the firm's press release announcing the 2016 ranking. "When addressed effectively, the impacts are substantial: higher economic productivity, potential for new revenue streams and services as well as a measurable benefit in reduced healthcare costs."

Officials in Eurométropole de Strasbourg in 2012 launched the Connected City mobile service in France, creating a network of 1,400 city points of interest (i.e., libraries, tourist attractions, public buildings and bus stops) with Near Field Communication (NFC) tags and QR codes. Residents and visitors use their mobile devices to access real-time, hyper-contextualized information related to near-by city points of interest, upcoming concerts and other cultural events, and so forth.

Cities across the country are collecting ever-growing volumes of data. But too often, their progress is slowed by factors including what the NLC refers to as "functional silos," an inability to facilitate cross-sector collaboration, and political gridlock. They need help getting their programs off the drawing board and out of pilot stages. This presents enormous growth opportunities for companies that are able to help cities break down these barriers and establish best practices for the use of IoT technologies and the construction of high-speed communications networks.

Laetitia Gazel Anthoine is the founder and CEO of Connecthings.