Quality Living Environments Need Infrastructure Investment

The term “smart city” doesn’t fully capture all the benefits that can be implied by it because a smart city does not solve a particular problem. Rather, a smart city—the connection and automation of urban systems and municipal services—is a framework for improving building efficiency, social services, education, healthcare, transportation, and the delivery of electricity, gas, and water.

President Obama called for 21st century infrastructure in his 2015 State of the Union address. He urged for the repair or new construction of trains, bridges, ports, and information technology. He also pushed for investments in these sectors. The president called on Congress to pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan to create jobs and make the U.S. a stronger, better place. Such a plan and investment is important and necessary nationally, but as stated from Washington, it possesses a degree or more of separation from most citizens.

Cities are about people, and they exist to serve their citizens. The shipment of an order to a business may be cheaper and faster with an upgraded port, but will not be celebrated the way intelligent transportation and parking solutions shave time off its shipping clerk’s commute. The quality of a city impacts its inhabitants in a highly tangible, daily way.

By 2050, 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities.[1] This growth puts tremendous strain on resources of all kinds including space and services. Consideration of their allocation and best use through a smart city framework approaches being necessary instead of optional.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is coordinating city response to traffic, mudslides and weather, crime, and more through their city operations center. Songdo, South Korea, is creating a new, highly efficient built environment. Masdar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), is planning for the future by building renewable electricity generation. There are thousands of targeted smart city case studies and pilot projects.

No two cities have or will have the same problems. Further, no two cities will have the same solutions to similar problems, but there are common ways to increase the likelihood of success in smart city projects.

Overcome turnover and hyperlocal politics

Paradoxically, while a Washington smart city call to arms may be remote, mayors and city councils are often difficult to convince about the opportunity—it does, after all, require a willingness to change and to commit to a longer-term process. However, sustained grass roots involvement from citizens to local business and civic leaders is crucial to make a project a priority over multiple administrations and political shifts. Rome was not built in a day and our cities will not be changed overnight. The current leaders in IT-oriented metropolises like Japan, South Korea, the UAE, and (soon) India can try to mandate smart city adoption from the top down but my guess is gaining local support—and overcoming local undo negative resistance—will be key. In the U.S., it is virtually essential.

Adopt indicator systems

Since cities are complex (not to mention large), they are hard to evaluate. They are all different in some greater or lesser ways. Nonetheless, cities may find it useful to adopt a limited set of indicating factors (e.g., ISO 37120:2014 Sustainable development of communities—indicators for city services and quality of life). Globally agreed-upon metrics enable cities to report improvement and return on investment. In turn, marketing such scores and certifications of compliance is a tool for growth and relocation. For example, if a business in City A sees that City B has a higher score of compliance, they may relocate to that city, and bring jobs with them.

Encourage public-private partnerships

The desire of cities to assume debt is currently low, and in many ways, this is good. Public-private partnerships for infrastructure programs offer an option, because much of the risk and financing burden is placed externally to government, or at the very least, shared. Additionally, the private sector route leverages the expertise and drive, which allows solution providers to create even more value.

Mandate global open standards

Rarely will one solution provider be able to supply all required smart city services. Moreover, allowing proprietary equipment and communication protocols poses operational risk to a city—it becomes locked-in with a provider unable to consider alternatives without a substantial financial commitment. Cities should insist that global, open standards be used to bring companies together to solve big problems.

Commit to cybersecurity

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama called upon Congress to pass legislation to meet the evolving threat of cyberattacks, combat identity theft, and protect citizens’ information, which includes liability protection for data sharing with the government. Cities would be prudent to mirror federal action to establish trust between the public and private sectors, and act in the best interest of residents. A data breach in one sector or region quickly reflects poorly upon all sectors and regions because public opinion is unlikely differentiated between varying information and automation approaches.

Infrastructure planning and investment must be a national priority. It must also be a local priority. Done the right way, smarter cities have untold potential to increase citizens’ quality of life, efficiently use natural resources, and effectively share space and information. In the end, they become a quality place for real people to live.



Ryan Franks is a Technical Program Manager for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA)

Morning Consult