Overcoming Challenges to Achieve the Vision of a Smart City

As new smart city initiatives launch, it’s worth exploring in more detail how a smart city operates. Let’s begin with a concise definition of a smart city: The Smart Cities Council, in its Smart Cities Readiness Guide, defines a smart city as one that “uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance its livability, workability and sustainability.” To be a smart city requires three essential strategies: collecting, communicating and crunching data. A smart city collects information about itself through sensors, communicates that data using wired or wireless networks and then crunches that data for current and predictive awareness. Basically, it’s a way of creating a master infrastructure out of the many critical infrastructures that comprise a city. The goal is that this overarching infrastructure pools information in new, transformative ways that support a city in becoming much more than the sum of its parts.

At the heart of a smart city is a more citizen-centric approach to services. As the guide states, “A smart city, then, is one that knows about itself and makes itself more known to its populace. No longer do we have to wonder if a street is congested—the street reports its condition. No longer do we have to wonder if we’re losing water to leaks—the smart water network detects and reports leaks as soon as they occur. No longer do we have to guess the progress of the city’s garbage trucks—the trucks report where they’ve been already and where they are headed next.” In a smart city, there is a process that turns information into intelligence. This intelligence helps people and machines act and make better decisions, launching a beneficial cycle of data supporting better decisions supporting more data supporting even better decisions.

A smart city puts a premium on what the aerospace and defense industries call “situational awareness”—events happening in real time. It provides the overview, the big picture perspective, for an interdependent matrix of systems—water, power, transportation, emergency response, built environment, etc.—to collaborate for the greater good. Over the last few years, the ability to merge multiple data streams and harvest them for insights that enhance sustainability has greatly improved. However, here are a few of the barriers to smart cities that it will take considerable effort to overcome:

Siloed redundancies

The biggest challenge is to introduce the concept of systems thinking across the city’s numerous agencies. According to the Readiness Guide, most cities still use a “siloed” approach to incorporating smart city applications. “Individual departments build individual applications, with little regard to sharing costs, infrastructure and data. The result is expensive redundancies and unnecessary difficulties in coordinating between those isolated applications.” One of the key goals of a smart city is integrated service and data processing to avoid siloed projects and software systems.

Lack of financing & know how

Tax revenues are shrinking in many cities, making infrastructure projects increasingly difficult to finance. Investing in infrastructure can be a hard sell when many cities are in such straits they are forced into an austerity measures regime.  The good thing is that new payment models are emerging, which allow for a pay-as-you-go model instead of upfront capital. A lack of ICT skills in the workforce is another hurdle, but as consultation services go virtual, this obstacle becomes less intimidating.

Lack of citizen engagement

The smart cities movement is often plagued by communication issues.  Sometimes it’s simply a lack of clarity about the new terms of engagement. The Readiness Guide points out, “Cities should be wary of being too abstract with their smart city initiatives, recognize that citizens care about services that make their lives better, and adjust their engagement accordingly. Cities need to recognize when they need citizen and business awareness versus complete ‘buy in.’”

Lack of visionary leadership

Bringing in the new guard of streamlined functionality and improved livability takes leadership and vision. Someone who can embody, with passion and dedication, the paradigm shifts necessary to bring a city into the future is the linchpin to success. Whether it comes from within the administration or from involvement with those outside city hall, as the Guide reminds us, “every parade needs a leader.”

The above barriers are not insurmountable—they are small stumbling blocks on the way to a smarter, better city. With the right planning, leaders and citizens can make our cities more livable, more workable and more sustainable on both economical and environmental fronts.

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