Image of bridges over a river amidst a city skyline

The promise of futuristic smart cities that harness technology to improve infrastructure, efficiency, and overall quality of life for residents has consistently fallen short. While we’re still a long way from Jetson-style towns, city planners do have access to technology that can significantly move the needle when it comes to building a truly smart city. So why do smart city projects that show so much initial promise keep falling flat? We’ve seen big promises fail to deliver, like the Sidewalk Labs Quayside project or Sidewalk Labs’ spin-off company Replica’s work in Oregon, both of which were ultimately scrapped.

Quite frankly, there’s been a pattern of unintelligent spending on smart city projects. Decision makers need to elevate their financial mindset in their approach and ultimate execution when it comes to smart city projects. Many municipalities will receive funding and might be tempted to immediately buy the biggest and brightest piece of technology their budget will allow them to show their community that they’re taking action and try to gain public favor. However, there’s rarely a clear, outcome-based business case or reasoning behind the purchase and implementation. It’s this private-sector strategy that should be adopted by the public sector when it comes to smart cities.

The need for a smarter approach to smart city development is underscored by the massive infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law late last year. The bill allocates $500 million to smart city projects through the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant program. With funding underway, city leaders need to understand that the key to delivering on the promises of smart cities is to rethink their approach to smart projects and leverage data to inform new investments that will truly benefit residents, prevent failures, and keep cities running more effectively and efficiently.

Aside from dedicated “smart” funding, all funds should embrace “smart” to spend more intelligently, whether supported by data, technology, or most critically, intelligence. Every component of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill will need data to justify spending. This means it’s critical to understand how to access and use that data. Therein lies the smart opportunity to rethink how we approach smart cities.

Rethinking Smart Cities

A smart city isn’t made up of flashy, automated “set-and-forget” technologies. The true purpose of a smart city is to provide a better community experience. When municipalities invest in quick-fix gadgets, they’re not actually solving a community problem or delivering better outcomes. In most cases, smart city projects fail because planners don’t first analyze the data, identify a specific benefit, and determine the desired outcomes.

Some municipalities are starting to take a more focused approach to smart city strategy, however. Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is recognized as one of the most advanced smart cities to date, recently hired a new CIO to oversee the growth and efficiency of the city’s smart projects. The hiring of a private-sector leader to guide smart city projects demonstrates how much careful thought, planning, and strategy needs to go into smart city initiatives if they’re going to be successful. Most government agencies haven’t had the opportunity to deliver complex smart city projects and, therefore, often do not have the internal experience needed to implement them effectively and meet the desired outcome.

Data Lays the Foundation

How can towns, cities, counties, and states up the ante in data intelligence to drive future strategy? Yes, bridges will need to be fixed, and many investments will be obvious. However, what if city planners fully understood the true performance of their assets: How they trend against similar assets across the globe, when to invest, when to replace, and when to simply monitor and maintain. Capturing asset condition simply and effectively and using this insight to determine future investment requirements across multiple asset classes will revolutionize spending.

In terms of smart city projects, data is key to the foundation and ultimate success of any smart initiative. First and foremost, city leaders need to review data that’s already accessible to them to determine how and where smart city projects can make the biggest impact in their community. Reviewing data captured over the past five years allows decision makers to understand the state of their assets and how those assets have evolved over time, providing critical insights in the planning phase. Moreover, once a government agency establishes this baseline, they can predict future requirements across asset types and the overall community as new developments, trends, or statutory obligations are introduced.

Quality over Quantity with Smart Tech

For example, if a city is considering implementing smart sensors for drainage assets, they should start by reviewing data on how often the drainage assets are filling up, when they’re filling up, how they’re performing, how much maintenance is needed on a regular basis, and ultimately how the sensors will communicate with each other after the implementation phase. By taking this analytical approach before investing in any technology, they’ll likely find that, by only purchasing five sensors versus 2,000 and placing them in the right locations, they’ll get better outcomes at a lower investment.

When buying these technology widgets in bulk, maintenance costs year-over-year will increase and make it difficult to achieve a sensible ROI. If the sensors themselves aren’t maintained, they become less than worthless as business process becomes structured around the data they provide. If they fail to function and if manual inspections stop, the asset is in a worse place than before the technology was implemented and the risk of failure increases. It’s a stronger, smarter approach to determine where the technology will be most valuable and pull the most relevant data, rather than starting with a project scope that’s too large and pulling in too much data to manage. Additionally, understanding the future impact of these investments will ensure these funds don’t create a legacy of unaffordable maintenance.

Another example of how quality trumps quantity is in smart traffic light technology. Purchasing and installing a set of 100 smart traffic lights throughout a city can appear to be a step in the right direction, but it might not be the most impactful way to approach the project. Instead, city planners need to review and understand current insights of a city’s intersections, streets, and traffic patterns to determine which specific areas can be improved through lights with sensors.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Before starting the project, city leaders must also determine what actionable insights they can take from smart traffic lights to solve other community problems. Will they change traffic patterns during school pickup or drop-off hours to reduce traffic? Can they adjust traffic patterns during storms to help people avoid roads that regularly flood by leveraging data from the drainage sensors? The answers to these types of hypothetical questions should be carefully considered in conversations around implementing technology city wide. For example, installing lights in new locations that might not normally require traffic control can help nudge behavior. This can shift people to greener routes to manage congestion or reduce strain in difficult to maintain locations.

The key is to review all the data silos from the start of the project and determine how to combine them to create a safer and stronger community experience, aligned to the strategic aims, objectives, and outcomes the city is aiming to achieve. Marrying data silos, determining their joint functionality, and leveraging these insights to improve a wide range of community problems is what’s missing in today’s smart city projects.

Smart and Sustainable Communities

Another key aspect of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill is the focus on sustainable investments and how communities and quality of life can be improved. Smart city projects can assist with these goals as well. Using funding and smart city projects to re-route roads, rather than simply rebuilding the road, may be more expensive at the start. However, if the impact results in moving pollution from residential areas to brownfield locations, the long-term environmental and community investment will likely outweigh the initial investment.

Add the electrification of transportation and digitization of services into the mix, and more fundamental shifts will need to be considered. For example, why invest in expanding road infrastructure at all if smart vehicles and remote working will ultimately reduce congestion?

Smart City Projects Aren’t Always Tech-First

It’s also important to reiterate that smart city projects aren’t always synonymous with technology projects. Smart initiatives are almost always approached as a technology project that will be managed by the IT team instead of a collaboration with community leaders to understand how to best address specific community problems or achieve resident goals. This can result in a disconnect between the IT department and the decision makers who are allocating city funds.

To start building a smarter city, the technology should be more of an enabler to creating action plans that actually resonate with a community. You don’t necessarily need a widget to make a city smart. If city leaders can use the data they’re capturing—whether it’s the condition of an asset or resident complaints—they can implement more informed projects that improve their community. Smart projects can be as simple as finding new ways to collect feedback from community members and turn that feedback into appropriate action.

Additionally, a “city” is not always the best place to make “smart.” We should strive toward smart communities. Connecting remote or out-of-city areas can often have a much larger community benefit. Digitizing community service, providing locally accessible support, and delivering information in a timely manner to those who need it most, will empower planners to make informed decisions that make an entire community smart, not just the city.

A smart project is truly a smart project when it’s cost effective and encouraging a more positive resident experience. The underlying foundation to building a smart community should always be to implement flexible ways to collect data and marry those data silos to make more informed investments. It’s important to not get lost in the term “smart city” by equating it to technology and big cities with big budgets. A smaller budget that’s spent more effectively will provide a better community experience and instill public confidence.


MARC EVANS is vice president of government solutions at Brightly Software.

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