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Smart Cities — A Good Idea or Boondoggle

Smart Cities…what are they?  What will they be?  Who is driving this philosophy? Is “Smart Cities” a term in search of a definition?

From what I can glean from the “Internet of Things”, a “Smart City” is one that uses on line sensors and devices to collect vast amounts of data about what is happening in a city (everything from trash collection, water delivery, electric services, to policing, parking and traffic) and then is able to use that data to better serve its residents. That data can also be used to help with master planning, policy decisions, and the like.

The above was my definition. Being rather simplistic, I look to simple descriptions. However a simple description does not make a simple solution. The creation of a “Smart City” is not simple. Its easy to say “collect vast amounts of data” and “use that data to better serve” but the key is not in the definition, its in the execution.

If you Google “Smart City” you will find a company called “Smart City.”  It is a communications company that provides such services to large venues (like Disneyland), hotels, and yes, cities. It seems to understand that the key to a smart city is “Communications.”  This month in my favorite magazine, Stephanie Simmons of IPS describes a very small issue in dealing with communications and smart devices. Do you want all decisions made in the so called “cloud?”  Probably not, she says, as communications will be cluttered with “is there a car in this space” decisions, decisions that could and should be made locally. These kind of design alterations are underway.

There are millions of decisions like this that have to be made daily in a major city, and are made today. Without them traffic lights wouldn’t work, water wouldn’t flow, parking meters wouldn’t collect, sewage would back up, wayfinding wouldn’t find the empty space. Most of them are made without being thought of as “Smart”.

So are our cities already halfway to “Smart?”  Probably. What about the rest, “The collection of data and then being able to use it to provide policy and master planning.”

Now we get to the heart of the matter.  When it becomes time to replace my water meter, or the city’s parking meters,  the new one has a device that communicates with something, either the next meter or the DWP car that drives down the street or parking central, and provides information about the device.  The cost of that ability is built into the new meter. But what about the cost of huge databases, data collection, and dare I say it, the smarts to be able to ‘slice and dice’ all that data to make it not a bunch of pretty graphs, but information that we can use.

It is projected that by 2025 the annual spend for “Smart Cities” worldwide will be over $400 Billion This is a lot of gravy. Who is jumping on the train?  You know the names – IBM, Xerox, Siemens, Microsoft, Google, and the rest. Spending $20 million on a database will be small potatoes. These companies are looking to their future.

A friend in Australia tells me that every major city in the country now has a “Chief Digital Officer” to drive the “Smart City“ phenomena. (He says these folks make upwards of $250,000 per year.) There is a “Smart City” expo looming this year in Melbourne. He posits that companies who don’t embrace an entire suite of services for “Smart Cities” will be left to populate a second tier of suppliers, providing bits and pieces as subcontractors to the major players.

Will “Smart Cities” be simply a buzz word that politicians use to bolster their bona fides? Will they spend millions to create something that will fizzle out after a few years? How many “sustainability” projects have we seen begun and then drop from sight when the next bright idea comes along?

We need to give this a hard look. Most of the “Smart City” functions won’t directly touch city residents. Parking does. I can see the city fathers and mothers using our fair industry as an example of how they are going to put their city on the “Smart City” map. We have seen the first steps with SF Park and  LA ExpressPark that have taken small steps to providing information to drivers. The private sector with app driven information is pushing hard in this area.

But it can be only the beginning. Most of it, like pay by cell or the location of open parking space is hap hazard. But if a city, through a so called ‘major player’ decides to combine all parking information and services under one umbrella, the scenario mentioned above, where most of the suppliers become second tier and end up providing commodity like products and services, will come to pass. Then we ignore all this at our peril.

If parking leads instead of follows, venture capital may begin to flow more freely into our industry. Then who knows. Maybe it will be a smart move to properly embrace a “Smart City.”

JVH

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