Smart Cities’ First Task: Get Connected. Then What?

Generating data is easy; having the technology and resources to analyze and use that data is the heavier lift.

How deeply should today’s city leaders invest taxpayer dollars in smart city technology?

To answer that question, it’s important to remember what’s driving cities to become smarter: the growing ability to use technology to improve residents’ daily lives. That’s done by using electronic data collection sensors to gather information, which can then be analyzed to more efficiently manage assets and resources.

City leaders interested in leveraging smart city technologies are generally focused on addressing long term, existing municipal challenges, such as:

  • safety and security
  • traffic congestion
  • aging infrastructure
  • climate change
  • disaster response and recovery

A driver and a chokepoint

The proliferation of Internet of Things-connected devices, which can collect that data, is both a driver and a choke point for cities planning to invest in smart city initiatives. Acquiring sensor and machine IoT generated data is one thing; having the underlying technology and resources to analyze and use the data is another.

“Smart city strategists and urban planners need to implement the solutions that make it possible to utilize the data collected from various kinds of devices for holistically optimizing city operations,” according to a Gartner contributor in a post from its “Smarter with Gartner” series. To do so, some cities are partnering with their utility companies, which have extensive experience managing large volumes of data and conducting predictive analytics. Others are working with technology partners which offer similar, and in some cases deeper, expertise.

Efforts to improve mobility are often at the forefront of efforts. For example, in San Antonio, home to Rackspace headquarters, the city’s Office of Innovation has launched the SmartSA initiative, which focuses on two key initiatives: transportation and enhanced access to city services. SmartSA projects include:

  • city information apps
  • free WI-FI in city parks and community spaces
  • pedestrian safety and congestion technology
  • digital community kiosks
  • security cameras
  • LED streetlights
  • drones for first responder safety

The city is actively seeking creative ways to advance its smart city initiatives without breaking the bank. One way it’s doing that is by standing up “innovation zones” to test various smart city technologies before fully committing to city-wide rollouts.  Other cities are actively collaborating in an effort to accelerate their own smart city initiatives.

A common entry point

LED streetlights are one of the easiest point of entry for smart city initiatives, as most LED streetlights come with some form of connectivity. When cities upgrade from traditional street lamps, they have the opportunity to create a citywide WAN, or wide area network, allowing them to collect and transmit information to monitor and respond to everything from traffic and air quality to crowds and noise.

Gartner has projected that by 2020 nearly 10 percent of smart cities will use LED streetlights as the backbone for an enhanced metropolitan WAN.

Using infrastructure that exists today gives CIOs the ability to expand capabilities now, while laying the groundwork for future opportunities. Cities that will be successful in this endeavor must adopt a crawl, walk, run mentality.

Booz Allen Hamilton uses Four Degrees of Smartness to define the different stages of the journey cities are facing:

  • Connected
  • Integrated
  • Personalized
  • Predictive

Of these four stages, the two that most directly focus on citizen engagement and improved customer services are the “connected” and “personalized” stages.

Connected assumes that a city has the underlying infrastructure in place to provide on-demand access via website or app and can be updated in real-time. In the personalized stage, citizens can request and access information specific to their needs and specify preferences for the type and frequency of data they receive based on those needs.

In Gartner’s recent Hype Cycle for Smart City Technologies and Solutions, analysts found that  smart lighting is leading the way, thanks to its relatively low cost and energy savings coupled with the ease of implementation. The majority of the truly citizen-centric smart city technology however, is yet to come — Gartner estimates within the next five to 10 years, with much of that growth a direct result of technologies that are still emerging today.

Gartner’s Smart City Hype Cycle

With that in mind, it’s important to temper expectations. City executives must still weigh the costs and benefits of new initiatives, as well as their city’s appetite for tackling leading edge technologies versus watching to see what works for other municipalities.

The Smart Cities Council is trying to make those decisions easier. A network of technology companies, working together with top universities, laboratories, and standards bodies, the Smart City Council offers guides, case studies and policy frameworks for smart city initiatives.  In July, the council launched what it calls the “Smart Cities Project Activator,” which aims to enhance real-time city to city collaboration and reduce the typical lag time between concept and execution.

Today, much of the technology enabling smart cities is certainly beyond the conceptual phase, but still not anywhere close to broad adoption. Some cities are moving forward aggressively to build the necessary baseline infrastructure while others have adopted a more conservative approach.

If you’re a city leader weighing the costs and benefits of adopting smart city technologies, consider partnering with Rackspace.

We offer a team of unbiased experts across a range of leading cloud and infrastructure technologies — built on a compliance-ready framework and backed by ongoing managed operations, continuous monitoring, security services, living compliance documentation and audit assistance.

Jeff Valdes supports Rackspace Government Solutions; he is responsible for state and local government strategy and business development. Before joining Rackspace in 2013, he spent five years as a technology consultant to the Department of Defense, directly supporting various agencies and military branches. Before that, he spent nine years on active duty as a Naval officer and attack helicopter pilot. Jeff is a certified business continuity professional with an MA in IT Technology Management from Webster University and a BA in Marketing from Cedarville University.

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