Smart cities are not about tech, but culture

Smart city projects are ongoing across the globe to meet the needs of city planners facing burgeoning city population booms, or to re-attract new business, industry and inhabitants for the future. But what are "smart city" projects and what have we learned about their development and implementation so far?  

The Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences undertook a study of smart city projects in 2015 to define what makes the projects "tick" and what value the projects add that make them "smart". In their study, the smart city projects had to meet three criteria:  1) there is development or use of new technology, intending to generate not only economic value but also ecological and/or social value; 2) there is an element of innovation or experimentation and 3) the project is not run by only one organisation but as a partnership.  These conditions in the definition of smart cities provide an excellent starting point for reviewing current lessons learned from around the world.  

India is one of the leading countries developing smart cities, with a commitment to develop a    100 smart cities throughout the country to cater to unprecedented urban growth. The goal is to guide development and investment in physical, economic and social opportunities for its citizens. At the heart of these efforts is the desire to improve quality of life, enhance public services and construct thousands of new affordable housing units. One valuable lesson learned is that construction of improvements and implementation of technology is one of the easiest challenges. The more difficult challenge is to formulate cultural shifts in which middle and higher income earners make more use of public transportation systems. The United States faces similar challenges.

Recently, the United States Department of Transportation (US-DOT) conducted a "Smart City Challenge" where they invited mid-sized cities crossed the US to share ideas in creating an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move faster, more efficiently and at lower cost. The prize was a federal government commitment of $40 million to the winning city, if the planners could leverage an additional $500 million in private and public funding to make their smart city vision a reality. Although the smart city challenge was built on leveraging new, emerging technologies, the competition was about far more than technology. It required city planners to identify their most pressing transportation problems and envision bold, new solutions. The key to smart cities was not to increase capacity for a tech-savvy few but to meet the needs of residents of all ages and abilities so everyone could share the benefits smart, connected cities can offer.  

Cities applying for the challenge were diverse in their geographic locations, populations and visions for the future. Ideas included providing 'first-mile' and 'last-mile' service for transit users to connect underserved communities to jobs. Results of the challenge were surprising. The following statistics represent the findings of the US-DOT challenge.

In metropolitan areas of the United States, the typical job requires greater than 90 minutes to access by approximately 73% of the metropolitan workforce using public transportation. This time is far too long for the future workforce. In addition, goods and services into and within a city trap trucks and transport vehicles in crowded stop-and-go traffic, which cost an estimated $28 million annually in truck operating costs and wasted fuel.

More than 30% of the urban traffic is a result of patrons and workers searching for close-access parking. On top of these limitations are unoptimised traffic flow on to congested freeways and into arterial streets. Congestion in these areas causes an additional 10% of all traffic delays within an urban area. Traffic congestion also increases carbon emissions. The 78 applicant cities in the US survey alone represent over a billion metric tons of CO2emissions annually.

Transportation, however, accounts for only a small portion of the real challenges involved in building a smart city. Non-technological aspects, including management, financing can also impose uncommon challenges.

One of the key aspects of any undertaking is a transparent, joint  commitment  rather than a passing  involvement.This has been a crucial lesson learned in smart cities projects, where the projects involve multiple parties such as government, businesses, industry, social and non-governmental organisations, as well as client/user groups. Each may have some involvement in the project, but without commitment, the project may not reach completion-at least not to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. True commitment requires dedication of resources for the outcome. One key example from the Amsterdam study highlights the challenge:

"In the Climate Street project…the entrepreneurs, predominantly retailers that were the prospective end-users, were not really committed to the project. They did not have to invest in the project, but they did not have much to gain from it. The benefits of installing smart plugs, meters and displays in terms of energy savings (on which the project critically depended) were very marginal, and thus many of the entrepreneurs lost connection to the project…the entrepreneurs felt no sense of ownership. When the subsidy ended, so did the project, because there was no one with an interest in continuing it."

Correspondingly, projects are often started with citizens considered to be the key users and focal point for the project. Interestingly, however, these same citizens often have no firm commitment to the outcome. As discovered by India, the challenge is often more cultural than developmental.

Researchers have found it's not just about building smart cities anymore-it's about being smart enough to apply the best (most appropriate) technologies to get the job done with the most effective financing and most efficient management, while effecting cultural change.

To do this requires stretching your vision from the normal project questions of,  "What can be done to address a symptom now?"to, "What  mustbe done to meet the future?"    This requires not just "smart" ideas in technology, but better, more efficient financing and project management, coupled with concerted efforts to change public opinion and culture. We are on the cusp of a revolution in technology, inter-connectedness, management and finance that promises to transform our lives. But we can only do so if we all embrace the change.  

(Iyengar is Director, School of Computing and Information Sciences, Florida International University, Miami, USA; Madni is distinguished adjunct professor, University of California at Los Angeles)

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