By Michael Cannon

Residents’ expectations of their local governments are constantly increasing. To meet this demand requires communities to change how they do business. The communities that will thrive will be the ones where planners, technologists, and government leaders work together to plan for and take the necessary steps to make their communities 21st century smart cities.

Every local government is unique and while some of the most advanced smart cities and counties share common qualities, the approach will be different for each one. Unless a city is being built from scratch with an unlimited budget, most smart city initiatives will be incremental.

A well-thought-out assessment serves an important first step in the journey to becoming a smart community. A smart city readiness assessment defines what resources are available, what needs exists, and where priorities and opportunities exist when it comes to a community’s infrastructure and technology. Given the speed at which technology is evolving, assessing opportunities for smart cities needs to be done constantly.

Global management adviser McKinsey and Company summed it up well in a October 2012 report, “The Smart-City Solution” by Wim Elfrink1: “When you get a critical mass, the data on the benefits [of a smart city] is so compelling: a 50 percent reduction over a decade in energy consumption, a 20 percent decrease in traffic, an 80 percent improvement in water usage, a 20 percent reduction in crime rates.”

Transforming a community into a smart city offers benefits in several areas:

Quality of life. Smart urban planning and building sensors and other technology into an urban infrastructure (e.g., new construction, buildings, roads, parking systems), establishes the building blocks for smart cities, and helps “future proof” a community.

Economic development. The infrastructure found in smart communities attracts new businesses and technology-oriented workers.

Service enhancements. The ability to make information available to residents through real-time access allows them to pay bills and access such local government data as land-use information, budget information, and crime statistics.

Transportation. Smart city applications and infrastructure can improve traffic flow, parking, public transportation; support autonomous vehicles personal transport systems; and improve pedestrian safety.

Public safety. Gunshot detectors, resident alert systems, and smart cameras (video analytics) are just a few possibilities.

Environmental. Energy management options include pollution sensing, smart metering, and real-time energy consumption tracking, as well as advancements in alternative energy management (solar and wind systems).

Many of the building blocks of a smart city are technologies that are advancing rapidly, including sensors and Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, artificial intelligence, 5g wireless networks, fiber networks, and big data. Securing these technologies is also a critical component of smart cities.

Learning by Defining

Let’s start by defining these technologies and how they fit into smart cities. IoT describes the world of Internet-connected devices that can communicate with each other and share data. IoT devices are expected to grow to more than 20 billion by 2020 and account for $7.1 trillion in business according to Cisco.

In a smart city, these devices can be sensors in roads, street lights, buildings, and air quality systems. They are designed to communicate with each other and can often be controlled remotely and share large amounts of data.

To prepare your community for autonomous vehicles, for example, you may need to have sensor and IP-based beacons throughout your road systems, parking lots, parking garages, traffic lights, and crosswalks. These IoT are infrastructure elements that will communicate with and help guide autonomous vehicles safely through your community.

An excellent source for smart community and IoT applications is through Esri, a GIS company ( Amazon and Cisco are also industry leaders in building IoT software and tools.

On a more basic level, sensors in roads can monitor temperature and be wirelessly communicating with road signs to warn drivers of icy conditions and dynamically adjust speed limits. To ensure the most efficient roads of the future, some cities may choose to make autonomous vehicle-only streets that will control traffic lights and minimize stopping and going and improve pedestrian safety.

Palo Alto, California, is building sensors into parking surfaces and configuring these sensors to upload to the cloud. Once the information is in the cloud, drivers can find available parking in real time using a smartphone.

Another example is using smart metering technology for utilities. Smart meters can provide monitoring in real time of electricity demand and make it easier to institute variable pricing based on peak demands.

When electricity usage is lower during evening and nights, it is cheaper to supply electricity and rates can be lowered accordingly. Coupled with battery and electric storage systems, peak demand during daytime hours can be reduced further.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can also be important elements of smart cities, and they are often confused with each other. Artificial intelligence at the most basic level refers to computers that can mimic human decision making.

Just like a child, these computers learn from past experiences and can make better decisions through time. Autonomous vehicles use AI to navigate. AI can be used to dynamically set toll rates based on traffic congestion.

Machine learning is a form of AI and analyzes large amounts of data to improve decision making. The quality and format of the data are essential for machine learning to work and may often involve data scientists to ensure it is working.

Next-generation (5G) wireless networks and fiber throughout a community are critical infrastructure for smart communities. These can be used to connect sensors, cameras for video analytics, and enable smartphones to access information.

As a community goes about building or repaving roads, managers should consider installing conduit and fiber if the budget permits since the incremental cost of doing so is minimal compared to constructing these after the fact. This reduces the overall cost by as much as 70 percent.

Improving Quality of Life

Giving the public access to wireless Internet throughout a community can improve the quality of life of residents and provide instant access to information from parking and bus transit apps to budget data and energy consumption information.

Stafford County, Virginia, uses Pulse Point, a smartphone app with which the 911 center’s CAD system communicates. A user downloads the PulsePoint app and then agrees to be notified in the event of a life-threatening health event.

The county has more than 2,000 PulsePoint users who have voluntarily signed up to receive alerts when someone is experiencing a cardiac arrest or other health emergency. App users within a quarter-mile radius of the incident receive a description of the emergency and the location. The app also provides information on the nearest automated external defibrillator (AED) device.

These alerts provide an extra line of help for victims where those first few minutes can make a difference between life or death, and in most cases, can aid the victim before public safety personnel can arrive on the scene, which might take six minutes or more.

Big data and data analytics also play a role in smart cities. Cities are sharing data with residents, and governments are collecting data from residents. People and businesses are using open data initiatives to create apps of their own, and local governments are using this information to improve services. Open data is simply what many communities do to publish data they generate in an easily downloadable format.

The city of Los Angeles, for example, supports the GeoHub (, a new public platform for exploring, visualizing, and downloading location-based open data. Stakeholders can analyze and combine open data layers using maps, as well as develop new web and mobile applications.

Government transparency can be dramatically improved with the open data. Stafford County’s open data portal ( sums it up well: “This is the community’s public platform for exploring and downloading open data, discovering and building apps, and engaging to solve important local issues.”

Another important part of smart city infrastructure is making sure all these IoT devices, sensors, along with other wireless and connected devices, are secure. The sheer scale of these interconnected devices presents security challenges never before seen or anticipated.

Since these devices communicate and can send a large amount of data, it is essential that advanced encryption protocols, access control systems, and redundancy are in place should these systems get hacked. An excellent resource for more detailed information on securing smart cities can be found at

If your community is like most communities that have not started a smart city initiative, you may want to consider starting with a readiness assessment. The assessment should begin with a clear vision of your smart city future. The development of the plan should involve all stakeholders, planners, IT, department heads, residents, and elected officials.

I recommend that local governments examine if they need to include outside expertise. A jurisdiction, for example, may want to form a team of staff composed of technologists, planners, public works and utilities engineers, and data experts. Then learn what other communities are doing and determine if any initiatives can be replicated and whether expertise exists in-house or whether outside experts are needed.

Ideally this would involve developing a multi-year plan. Since most smart cities are not built quickly, a plan should cover a planning period of five to 10 years. It should identify specific goals and objectives that can be easily tracked and updated on an annual basis.

Once a plan has been developed a community may want to start with a pilot initiative to gain some experience and provide a proof of concept for the public and elected officials.

The state of Georgia is making a concerted effort to help communities by creating a smart city competitive grant program, where four winning jurisdictions will receive grants to explore issues around “mobility, equity, and resilience.” The program—called the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge (—is being led by Georgia Tech University in partnership with Georgia Power and eight nonprofit local associations, which will award grants of up to $50,000 to four cities.

The program involved workshops held during Spring 2018; applications were due in May 2018. Winning community award announcements will be made in August 2018 for one-year projects.

With the right planning that involves key stakeholders and provides necessary funding, your community can become the next smart city.

Endnotes and References


Michael Cannon is chief technology officer, Stafford County, Virginia (

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