Smart city report urges interoperability, partnerships and outcomes over innovation

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Open data in San Francisco. Crime analytics in Philadelphia. A sensor network in Chicago. 

Last year brought a whirlwind of smart city development, and 2017 is shaping up the same way, but not without its share of challenges. It’s why the National League of Cities (NLC) released a report Thursday to highlight exceptional smart city initiatives in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Charlotte, North Carolina, and New Delhi, India. The study serves as a window into last year’s smart city activity, providing use cases and recommendations to cities considering similar efforts.

“We decided to focus in on smart cities development because we really saw this taking off throughout the country and globally,” said Brooks Rainwater, NLC senior executive. “As cities are trying to make better decisions they see this technology underlay as a really great available tool to help them, whether that be on transportation decision making, performance management, internal processes or whether that be on the finance sector and public safety.”

Brooks, who co-authored the report, said the research is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of each city’s smart city efforts, but rather just a glimpse, breaking down a portion of each city’s programs into three-part assessments covering policies, administrative actions and the community engagement that made smart city projects possible. In San Francisco, for example, this meant a review of the city’s goal for zero waste by 2020 and mandatory recycling regulations. It meant looking to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, which formed partnerships and innovation programs. It also meant a review of the community engagement work that included incentives, energy monitoring software, open data and direct outreach to citizens via the San Francisco Department of the Environment. 

“This conversation has really blown up in the last couple of years around smart city investment and deployment,” said Nicole Dupuis, NLC principal associate of urban innovation. “And for a long time, I think it was safe to say it was kind of led by industry and one of things we wanted out of this report is to move that conversation into the public sphere again and create a resource for our city members that they could use to navigate this new technological field.”

One outcome of this report is another definition for the term “smart city” that would help clarify NLC’s mission. Unlike many definitions that doggedly attach the term to a specific goal, structure or outcome, Dupuis said they wanted to keep it fairly loose. Technology is always advancing, city objectives vary, and so, Dupuis said, the result is a definition that marries data, analytics software and organization directives into one.

“Hence, a smart city is a city that has developed some technological infrastructure that enables it to collect, aggregate, and analyze real-time data and has made a concerted effort to use that data to improve the lives of its residents,” the report states.

Beyond its profiles and spotlights, the value of the report is baked into its final recommendations. The pointers are common sense, but often overlooked. 

Innovation must be tied to outcomes

The first piece of advice offered by the report is to attach innovation to outcomes. The authors said it’s easy for cities to get wrapped up in the processes and gadgetry and forget about identifying tangible outcomes. The report criticizes Chicago’s Array of Things project for this shortcoming.

The Array of Things was designed as a research tool to monitor urban elements like sound, weather and roadway traffic. There will be 500 sensors placed on street lights by the end 2018, and the city is looking for ways that the data might be used to support city decision making and improve quality of life for its citizens. Yet, despite such ambitions, NLC said that the there are no immediate and tangible ideas for how this data will be used. This isn’t to say that the project won’t have value, or even be of immense value long term, but it may require added thought from the city.

“Data collection is not an end in itself,” NLC states. “Cities should consider what public problems they want the initiative to address and how the data collected will help address those public problems.”

When asked about this criticism, Chicago CIO Brenna Berman explained that the Array of Things is a research tool the city is using to explore IoT, and that this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of what the Array of Things is meant to do.

“It’s funded by the National Science Foundation and not Chicago tax-payers,” Berman said. “There is a well-defined governance model and governance committee. All of those steps are in place. But it wasn’t designed to make sure that if the city was going to invest X dollars to set up the network and the sensors, then it better deliver X savings and these qualitative benefits for the residents and improvements to service delivery. Those are the things that would define a good operational project.”

Berman pointed to the city’s smart lighting project, which seeks to upgrade the city’s more than 350,000 street lights, as an example of a smart city project that Chicago is driving with defined outcomes in mind.

Partnerships are preferred

The NLC pointed to increased funding, fresh expertise, wider reach, shared risk and continuity for smart city projects between administrations as some of the key benefits in outside partnerships. Chief among these was added funding, with expertise coming in close second. 

In many of the projects cited in the report, funding came from federal grants, private companies and philanthropies. There were only a few instance when a city would invest heavily in general funds to pay for the smart city technology or initiatives, and even then this was usually done to create innovation offices whose mission was to seek funding through partnerships and grants. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago have done this with their own offices. And in Charlotte, the city has used partnerships to launch Envision Charlotte, a civic group founded in 2011 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to promote smart city development and sustainability. By working with local building owners, the organization saved more than $10 million in 2017, with Duke Energy,
Cisco and Charlotte Center City as the primary partners. 

Chicago’s Array of Things network is funded in part by a $3.1 million grant from National Science Foundation. San Francisco has received $11 million for its smart city transit plans from the White House’s $160 million Innovation Challenge. New Delhi relies on India’s multi-million dollar Smart Nation program for support. And Philadelphia is implementing a few smart city projects with the help of MetroLab, a national organization funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

“We do recognize that there are existing challenges in cities to pay for existing infrastructure and the idea of investing in new infrastructure does present kind of a challenge,” Dupuis said. “But, y’know, I think the cities have gotten really creative in pulling together partnerships and engaging with other cities to find money to invest in those technologies.”

Best practices, interoperability

The last piece of advice NLC offered came more as a warning. The group cautioned cities not to fall into the traps they fell into as government departments began forming the silos that so many technologists lament today. Namely, the problems that came with rushing into technology purchases and being left with systems that couldn’t communicate between departments, data that wasn’t shareable and digital tools that were jeopardized if a company no longer wished to do maintenance or went out of business.

“Cities need to think of a long-range plan for investing in these technologies,” Dupuis said. “If you invest in a particular smart city system and you deploy it, when something new inevitably comes along, how is your new system going to work with the older systems?”

Cities can find guidance on such topics from National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Smart Cities Council, he added. NIST is developing a framework for smart city development to streamline the obstacle course of interoperability issues and standards, while the Smart Cities Council has designed a Smart Cities Readiness Guide already in use in cities.

Editor’s Note: Colin Wood contributed to this story.

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