Cities need specialists to keep pace with emerging tech, experts say

From left: Jen Harder, FirstNet senior product director; Edward Knapp, chief technology officer at American Tower Corporation; Mike Zeto, vice president of internet-of-things solutions at AT&T, speak at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 9. (CES)

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As the “smart city” industry expands, some city officials struggling to keep pace with the latest flood of internet-connected devices billed as civic technology have started to agree with criticisms that the term “smart city” was created to “sell stuff.”

To stay afloat in the sea of devices, cities should hire people who can be responsible for charting the course of emerging technology within government, Jen Harder, the senior product director for FirstNet, the federal government’s public-safety mobile network, said Thursday.

“You can have somebody at the city level doing it, but until we have folks at the agency level also together working across top-to-bottom to really see what’s coming and catch the wave as its coming, public safety is traditionally very far behind that wave,” Harder said during a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The idea, Harder said, is that cities aren’t well-versed enough in deciding which vendors or emerging technologies to pursue, usually because they have more pressing problems at stake. For example, she said, while working to sign police agencies up for FirstNet, police chiefs would often lament that they have “five other jobs” to worry about before addressing technology concerns. The problem extends to mayors as well, according to Edward Knapp, the chief technology officer of the American Tower Corporation, a wireless infrastructure firm.

“They’re more struggling with the opioid crisis and other types of things, and their ability to worry about 5G infrastructure is not high on their priority list. So you have to have this advocate, somebody looking towards the future and learning from these early adoption modes,” Knapp said during the panel.

Harder and Knapp suggested city governments should create roles they referred to as “lookers,” who can review prospective civic-tech innovations without completely tearing down existing systems with each new procurement. Knapp said this can be done through pilot projects, which cities should embrace as a chance to “get [their] hands dirty” with civic technology without committing to a solution that may not be a good fit in the long-term.

One city where such an arrangement is underway is Philadelphia, which launched its first “pitch and pilot” program last month after creating a “smart city roadmap” outlining the city’s values and expectations for future civic technology pilots. The idea was to get ahead of vendors that are used to selling technology to agencies that may or may not be specially suited to fix city-specific problems.

“Are you going to let vendors come in and pick off departments one at a time, so when you need resources from each other, you’re already over-allocated and under-resourced in these areas?” Ellen Hwang, then the director of Philadelphia’s smart-cities program, said after the roadmap’s release last February. 

Back at the CES panel in Las Vegas, Mike Zeto, a vice president of AT&T’s internet-of-things division, said that even cities that are perennially strapped for resources can fall into the trap of siloing off discussions about emerging technology. Cities that grow more pilot projects to scale — meaning they impact multiple agencies — make more leaps forward than those that don’t, he said. But it still takes time for new civic-tech ventures to mature.

“There’s still no cities that are that damn smart,” Zeto said. “There’s a lot of smart corridors, a lot of smart projects but it’s really hard to work with policy and to scale things out.”

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AT&T, Civic Tech, FirstNet, Smart Cities
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