Nightmare scenario: smart cities that are actually dumb

As leaders imagine what the cities of tomorrow will look like, technologists forge onward without a clear plan of where they're going.

Today’s smart cities don’t have a clear plan.

There is no rulebook for how to turn a city of today into a city of tomorrow. Only a few scarcely adopted guidance documents for the Internet of Things (IoT) have been created in recent years — most of them in Europe — with the idea of creating governance around a concept that has so far been a playground for technologists whose primary interest is experimentation in the civic space.

Less planning can be productive. Less planning can lead to more experimentation. But the zeal of such an approach can also lend itself to disorganization, unforeseen legal issues or privacy concerns. Sticking government-operated cameras and microphones everywhere and then hooking them up to machine-learning algorithms without so much as a vote or single governing policy document isn’t everyone’s idea of an ideal city of the future. For some, such a proposition is a nightmare.

The Nightmare Scenario


“Nightmare” was the word used by Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller.

It’s not an Orwellian future Mattmiller fears, but a possible recreation of the departmental silos that government is now working so hard to tip over.

“Much like IT in the City of Seattle over the past 15 years, we had all of our different departments going out, buying technology that met their needs,” Mattmiller explained. “The problem that we ran into is that it becomes unmanageable, that our systems are so disparate that we can’t think as one city or implement one-city solutions because of all the variability in how our systems have been configured and built over time.”

For many, the smart city concept isn’t complete without inclusion of planning and vision that spans the enterprise from the outset. The main thrust of today’s most forward-thinking state and local governments is an organization that is unified and nimble, delivering services to citizens via a single-login and sharing data and resources internally across departments as effectively as one might expect to see in a small startup. Public sector IT’s most treasured mission has become a correction of the same organizational mistake that has been reinforced for decades.

“Now we look at IoT and the nightmare scenario is we repeat that mistake,” Mattmiller said. “We pursue these point solutions without thinking about scalability, without thinking about the big picture and as a result, we go 15 years down the road and we look at a utility pole. And this utility pole has seven different temperature sensors on it with seven different forms of backhaul to get to the city’s data center, where there are seven different servers collecting data. All those sensors are calibrated a little bit differently, so none of them produce similar information that can be reconciled across them and we continue this lack of sustainability, we continue to not leverage economies of scale because we now have different temperature readings for the transportation department versus the electric department and we’ve become a dumb smart city.”


Mattmiller conceded the value and necessity of experimentation, but expressed that today’s IT environment shows just how important it is to get ahead on standards and governance before it becomes too late.

A report released in November from London-based research group Machina Research identified three typical routes cities are taking today in pursuit of becoming “smart.” One approach is to create standalone applications upon which further projects can be built. Another is to focus on infrastructure, creating an IoT project platform and figuring out how those services would be integrated later. The third model is the creation of a “beta city,” in which a city experiments with technologies for short- and medium-term gain without a definite plan for how to scale out full deployments. Most cities pursuing smart city projects implement some combination of the three strategies, but the common element is a lack of sophisticated long-term planning.

Smart Cities Council Chairman Jesse Berst agreed that more rigorous planning is needed, and even went as far as to say that by his definition, the U.S. isn’t home to any smart cities. The Smart Cities Council is a network of companies that gathers the best research from universities, laboratories and standards bodies from around the world. Technically, there are four phases a smart city must go through, Berst said, and they are: convening with all stakeholders, building a high-level comprehensive vision for what the city hopes to accomplish, designing a plan, and then executing that plan.

“We see a lot of cities starting at step number four,” Berst said. “They rush off and implement some cool project for streetlights or transportation or smart policing. All of which is great, but it’s without that planning that would locate the synergies that really makes it cost efficient.”

Montreal, Canada, and Vienna, Austria, have the most comprehensive and sustainable governance around their smart city efforts, Berst said. And though not a state, the planning going into Illinois’ smart state initiative is also impressive, he added.


It may turn out that the divisions in government are a natural extension of human biology, Berst said, but it’s time for cities to evolve.

“Humans specialize. That’s normal and natural,” he said. “That’s how things get done and for the past 200 years or more in the case of some cities, they have been divided into departments and each department focuses on its specialty. And now we’re in an area where departments need to start sharing infrastructure and doing things in a different way. It’s the same change management challenge you find in a corporation or philanthropic organization. It’s just hard to get people to change.”

Putting aside his criticisms around governance, Berst named Boston as a city of many commendable IoT projects. Boston has smart trash bins, connected benches, data-sharing partnerships with Waze and Uber, a video-analytics data capture tool and a new IoT pilot similar to Chicago’s IoT research platform, the Array of Things.

Don’t Wait to Innovate

But Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge said the time for rigorous governance and standards hasn’t arrived yet.


“I do think eventually governance matters, data standards matter and we should start planning for that now,” Franklin-Hodge said. “But my biggest concern right now is not that we’ll end up with seven temperature sensors on every light pole, but that we’ll end up with temperature sensors on every light pole and we won’t get any value out of them.”

Boston has had smart trash compactors installed around the city for several years and city leaders still aren’t sure exactly how to use the data they produce in a useful way.

“Frankly, it’s a lot easier to install a smart trash can than it is to figure out how to save money by using the data coming out of that can,” Franklin-Hodge said. “The biggest value we get out of the smart trash cans is that they pack the trash so we have to pick up less frequently and they produce ad revenue for the city.”

An IoT project doesn’t need strong governance if no one has figured out whether that project is worth scaling up to a citywide level, Franklin-Hodge explained. Air quality monitoring programs, for example, can be found in many cities across the country, but it’s unclear whether there’s a compelling reason for cities to include them in their smart city efforts.

“I’ve yet to hear a compelling story about how someone has put that data to use or even a real theory of how we’re going to react to real-time air quality data in a way that has a significant public impact,” Franklin-Hodge said. “Are we going to go start shutting down streets where the air quality is poor? Do we have the model where we’re going to analyze the data annually and make changes around how we set up our infrastructure?”


One of the country’s most visible air-quality monitoring programs is AIR Louisville, a program that’s run by a nonprofit — the Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil — that collaborates with the City of Louisville, Kentucky, to distribute and monitor connected asthma inhalers for the purpose of generating air-quality maps.

The AIR Louisville project works with the Louisville Air Pollution Control District, whose main function is to ensure air quality meets federal standards. District spokesperson Tom Nord said the city doesn’t yet use air quality data measured at a neighborhood level.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “There’s a lot of discussion about smaller monitors, the eggs people are getting — you can put them at your house, put them in your back yard. … But if you want to get good data that you can actually show to a company, it’s expensive. Because part of the issue is we have to have data that is portable — that can be used for regulatory purposes.”

If people are going to take air quality data seriously, it needs to have a low margin of error, Nord said, which means it needs to come from a reliable air quality monitoring station, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about how air monitoring is done,” Nord said. “Getting data on a neighborhood level would be good, but the [regulatory environment isn’t oriented that way.] There’s a lot of creativity and a lot of innovation within air monitoring, but the expense of trying to do hundreds of monitors versus ten monitors, you’d have no money left over to do anything else.”


What Cities Need Now

Experimentation in all areas of urban research will clarify the mission behind the cities of tomorrow. Chicago’s Array of Things was conceived precisely to be that “urban-scale research instrument,” said Chicago CIO Brenna Berman.

“Cities need to first invest in some well-curated pilots to understand the impact and value of IoT in general and then scale solutions that have well-defined business models, business value and clear [return on investment],” Berman said. “In that sense, I think [Mattmiller and Franklin-Hodge] are both right.”

IoT research is progressing daily, but the security, privacy and public-education discussions are lagging behind, Berman said.

“Right now, this entire conversation about smart cities is happening with technologists and policy wonks. If we don’t elevate that conversation about the benefits of these types of projects to our residents so they understand why these investments matter, we’ll never move beyond the pilot stage. You need the buy-in and support because these are very public-facing projects.


“If I can’t sell this to ‘my mom’ then I haven’t clearly articulated the value of doing any of this.”

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