USDOT recently announced the 7 finalists in the smart city challenge. In looking at the finalists, I consider all of these “cool cities.” Denver, Austin, Portland, Pittsburgh, San Fran. These are all locations where myself and my peers would want to live. Big tech crowd. Start-up culture. It seems that this is where the DOT’s mindset was.
Now, I think these are great cities. I have been to all of them, with exception of Columbus. However, having a “tech-feel” is not enough to be a smart city. It takes more than that, and this blog post will detail “4 things USDOT smart cities need to succeed.”
Let me back up. Have you ever heard of a smart city? Well, if you have been listening to the marketing ploys by Cisco and IBM, you would think it is a nirvana where technology creates a harmonious synergy. Your home talks to your car. Your restaurant knows what you want before you get there. Efficiencies are gained by placing smart sensors. Everything is connected to the cloud. Nirvana.
However, one question remains: how does this sudden media blitz happen? I mean, the internet has been around in full force for a few decades. Sensor technologies aren’t new. WiFi has been around. What is different?
Well, far be it from me to be a conspiracy theorist, but I believe it has to do with the almighty dollar. I remember 3-4 years ago when IBM started marketing their transportation problems. I was sitting in Reagan National Airport and looked up at a banner. I thought to myself, “Hmm, that is interesting. I didn’t know IBM was looking at traffic. Maybe they are using Watson, their supercomputer who just won Jeopardy to solve a complication algorithm. How awesome would that be!”
As I came to find out, it was all a marketing campaign. In looking at their deployment materials, it looks nothing more than a run-of-the-mill software package. No Watson smarts. No IBM supercomputer. No transformation. Maybe I am being a little harsh as my expectations were pretty high; however, with a major company entering into the transportation landscape, it was a bit of a let-down.
The purpose of this post is not to vendor-bash at all, but it made me start thinking:
Here’s the realty: you can put all the technology you want in. If the institutions do not use it as an effective tool, then all you’ve done is create an expensive paperweight.
Therefore, this post is not going to touch on how cities should provide “x” technology or “y” deployment, but rather fundamental concepts that must be in place in order to be successful in the smart city landscape. Technology and projects are a means to an end, not the end themselves.
1.Invest in people
With new processes, procedures, technologies, cities need to be willing to recruit and retain talent. The compensation of staff needs to keep up with what they could get elsewhere. I am not just talking direct compensation, but also the culture aspect. Making government “cool” by surrounding everyone with a common goal, similar to how start-ups function. This might also mean allowing for extra hours for “energetic” employees, including overtime, bonuses, etc.
Luckily, cities’ policies and procedures are less cumbersome than their State or Federal compatriots. They do not have to go to a full legislature, and a mayor is more of an autocrat than a diplomat like the president.
2. Make elected officials care
Having a smart city is a great feather-in-the-cap for elected officials; however, they need to be on-board and allow their staff to thrive. Unfortunately, working in civil service is not a “sexy job.” While politicians do not interact with staff at a one-on-one level, it still feels like getting punched in the gut when someone demonizes government. These recent politics have made government a four-letter word. The inaction by federal legislature, and damning campaign speeches add to this mantra.
Giving workers the backing of top management and elected officials will go a long way. By providing a support structure and allowing your employees to thrive is the cornerstone to any organization, let alone city government. This is especially true with new technology, as new processes and new ways of thinking will be prevalent.
Elected officials should allow for some risk, which is against the norm. Progress does not happen by playing it safe. The return on investment of a stock is much higher than a CD. However, even the current methods of progress (research, trial, wait) takes too long. We are dealing with technology now, which is moving much faster than anything they’ve dealt with before. Concrete moves slow. Sensors and data move much quicker.
3. Provide data lakes
Now, data has been used as a buzzword in the transportation community, even more than “smart or livability.” Everyone wants more data. Everyone needs to share data. Yeah, we get it. This is where a data lake comes in. I liken it to cryogenic freezing. There is no cure for death or some diseases yet, but folks like Walt are looking to be revived at some time in the future.
A data lake is a data repository where all data is stored, regardless if it is used or not. Data is extracted at a later time, when it is deemed necessary. The important distinction between these two is that raw, structured, or other data is placed in a lake. A data warehouse only deals with structured data. Further info is here:
See, with all this data coming in there is no way city officials can fathom all the various intricacies between the different bits of data. By putting the infrastructure in-place, it leaves at least the option for future analysis, as city budgets don’t allow for top-tier data scientists to be hired. Granted, this could occur over time, as work becomes commoditized.
4.One-stop shop for everything
Cities need to consolidate all services (municipal services, transportation, restaurants, etc.) into one location. A centralized app, or a consolidation of existing apps, would be needed. This would help direct information to one location, which would also start forcing the issue of cross-analyzing different bits of data. Hail an Uber? Water heater turns down, which saves you money. Walking in the park at night? Lights turn on/off, which charges you money. This type of set-up leads to a concept that we are only scratching the surface on: usage-based pricing. Without the coalescence of data, however, this will never be realized (more on this in a later post).
So what do you think? Do you think these issues are overblown?