At the "Getting Smarter About Smart Cities" panel session at the Big Communications Event this week, panelists enumerated some of the challenges unique to municipal technology projects:
- Municipalities have notoriously constrained budgets.
- Most are highly departmentalized, and rarely does any given department have the resources (let alone the incentive) to collaborate with any other, making city-wide planning unlikely.
- Political considerations (e.g., a mayor's tenure, the patience of the populace) can make any project an uncertain proposition.
- Decision-making and project implementation can be slow as molasses.
- The promise of a government contract or the interest of private company looking for a demonstration testbed can instantly instigate new projects or reorder project priorities.
- And cities are highly unlikely to innovate; not only do they rarely have the resources to do it, it's simply not their function.
In short, simply getting a municipal project off the ground may require as much innovation as goes into the technology itself.
Austin's IT architect Ted Lehr was asked about city planning. He said, "When I joined the city two years ago, they asked me to talk to the watershed department. It's usually beautiful here, but we do get severe weather -- we have flash floods here. I was asked about making five and 10-year plans. I pulled out my phone. You didn't have these 10 years ago -- these things have changed everything. My advice was: do not put down what technology you'll have in five and 10 years. Instead, describe processes. Use concepts like 'agile' and 'lean'," he said.
Cam Witt from the Wi-Fi Alliance agreed: "From a technology standpoint, use cases are so different -- a sensor embedded in pavement or a camera on a pole? The connectivity issues are different. WiFi is evolving as well. Some versions are for long range, low packet size. Some are for dense mediums, like stadiums. Is WiFi right? Depends on use case," he said. He turned to Lehr directly to remark, "That doesn't make it easy for you."
Austin is one of the seven finalists for the US Department of Transportation's Smart Cities Challenge. Lehr explained that in order to compete for that award, Austin adapted some of its plans to investigate how smart transportation options might be used to serve less affluent communities by providing better access to jobs, health care and education. The city is also investigating if there's a transportation component to the solution for urban food deserts.
Austin is also examining the idea of marking a traffic corridor between its downtown core and the local airport where self-driving vehicles -- probably buses -- could safely and efficiently transport people between the two areas.
Addressing the data center piece has generated millions of dollars in in-kind donations from 80 companies. The focus is on transport because a lot of the money is coming for US DOT.
Garry Connelly, the president & founder of Host in Ireland, said that municipalities often need to follow up on public/private projects -- but he said that given all the restraints, you have to use common sense too.
Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) built a stadium in Dublin, where you can get notified when your hot dog is cooked or when the bus home is ready to leave. But Intel never talked to stadium-goers and, while the connectivity was great, there weren't enough bathrooms.
Dublin also set up a program where it provides access to bicycles on nearly every street corner, accessible with a smart card. "You mentioned weather in Austin? It shits weather in Dublin, but it still worked," he said.
But then bicycle accidents went up. Was the answer more technology? A collision avoidance system, perhaps? No, you use common sense, he said. Every bike had a reflective blazer, and if bicyclists don't wear it, they could get a citation.
Private projects need to see a return on investment. Public projects often don't, but they do often have to financially justify themselves, and that often includes creating a means for ongoing funding. Tolls on new roadways are an obvious example.
What do smart projects generate that cities can cash in on? Data. But different geographical markets have different regulations about privacy to conform to.
Copenhagen, another city pursuing smart projects including bike sharing, can't derive revenue from data, Lehr noted. So Hitachi Ltd. (NYSE: HIT; Paris: PHA) is talking about creating a data exchange -- a clearinghouse for data. Not only is Copenhagen putting data in, but other cities are too, as are bike companies. Other companies might set up similar data exchanges.
— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading