Applied Smarts

Highlighting interesting projects, concepts and initiatives from around the globe.

The Smart City - Tips for Talking About Smart Cities

There has been growing interest in the smart city concept in recent years. Almost every major company involved in information and communications technology has some type of smart city plan.1

One of the largest technology companies in the world is hiring what it calls "city managers" throughout the United States.2 Part of the job description for this position includes: "make sure constituents, including elected officials and leading advocates, are aware of what we're doing and mobilize citizens around it."

As private companies enter the realm of traditional city and county governance, it is critical for managers to understand what smart cities are and how local governments can benefit from adopting a smart city strategy. This article provides an overview, some of the technologies being used to enhance knowledge infrastructure, and the role private industry is playing in this movement.

It also includes information that managers can use when tech companies reach out to their communities and elected officials to promote smart city-related technology products.

Going High Tech

At their best, smart cities will use technology to solve issues for themselves and the people they represent. These technologies should increase the efficiency of government agencies to better serve the participants. This can be done by collecting, processing, and analyzing data, and then using that data to manage local services, infrastructure, and communications.

To understand what a smart city is, think about a high-tech house. You can remotely activate security, heating, cooling, and sprinkler systems; receive notification on a cellphone when family members come home; see what is in the refrigerator when you are at the grocery store; and the sports fan's favorite, make sure the television is recording the football game from anywhere on the globe.

Today, we are not only able to control our homes remotely, our homes can also contact us and send us a video if they detect someone ringing the doorbell. Soon, houses will be able to correct problems themselves or call a technician.

Imagine only watering the yard when the soil is dry, or having the house order new air conditioning filters when the old ones get dirty, ensuring that the correct filter is delivered the next day and seriously cutting down on weekend trips to the hardware store.

A Plethora of Possibilities

Local governments have the potential to work much the same way. What if parks watered themselves based on the needs of the type of plants they had and the amount of recent rain? And what if when a sprinkler broke, maintenance was notified that a new part had been ordered, and replacing the part was automatically loaded into the maintenance work schedule?

There are several areas where smart city development is occurring rapidly, including energy, infrastructure, traffic, and parking. All of these areas rely on a proliferation of data that can be collected, analyzed, and used to make improvements.

Examples of smart city energy technologies range from water and power companies using smart meters that report customer usage instead of an employee having to visit each meter and read the usage, to such products as real-time acoustic fiber optic monitoring that detects and locates stress on large diameter water pipes while they are in use.

Improvements in traffic signal technology seem to come out daily. Just recently, Wi-Fi-enabled traffic signals that pushed data to a city's traffic center were the latest in technology, and now systems are being installed where the traffic signals communicate directly with each other to monitor and manipulate traffic.

Forest Acres, South Carolina, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, are two cities that have recently approved the installation of these new "adaptive" traffic signal systems, which will automatically adjust timing when unexpected traffic congestion arises.

Parking is another area where smart city technology is taking hold. SFpark, a federally funded pilot program launched in 2011 by the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority (, delivers real-time data on parking availability through phone apps and uses demand-based pricing.

The pilot program evaluation, completed in 2014, showed a variety of improvements. Customers had a better experience because it was easier to find parking spaces; paying for, and avoiding, parking citations was also simpler.

Business districts benefitted from better parking availability. Greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled decreased. Net parking revenues increased by $1.9 million per year due to a large increase in parking meter revenue and a smaller increase in parking garage revenue, despite a decrease in parking citation revenue.

Evanston, Illinois; New Haven Connecticut; and Santa Rosa, California, have approved smart parking systems that use mobile apps.

In addition to improving efficiency, smart cities will be able to connect residents both to their communities and to each other. Some cities are already seeing a surge in the use of such local social networks as

PM magazine focuses on many of the ways local governments can use social media in the December 2012 Innovation Edge department article, "Tapping Technology to Connect with the Public."

There are existing apps in use by local government where residents upload a photo of a pothole or damage to other city infrastructure, and the repair work is automatically scheduled based on the GIS location of the resident's phone when the photo was taken.

One example of this is Seattle, Washington's "Find It, Fix It," which is a service-request mobile app. This type of technology relies on residents using their cellphones to help manage infrastructure, report crimes, and perform a host of other activities instantaneously, instead of taking days or weeks as happened with resident complaints in the past.

A New Business Model

In the race toward smart cities, innovations are occurring across all areas of city and county responsibility. There is even an annual Smart Cities Week conference that brings together energy and technology companies to discuss smart city innovations and showcase related products.

It is still unclear how the products and services needed to make a city smart will be delivered, and what they will cost. While some technologies are initiated by local governments, many more are being driven by large technology and energy companies, adding a profit motive to the initiatives.

One technology company's hiring of local "city managers" and additional employees is a sign that its business model is changing from a service company with a search engine, to the company of today that delivers additional online products like software and services, to a company that is laying fiber in communities so that it can provide the high-speed pipeline through which its products travel to end users.

The new business model will require people on the ground to deal with localities as they work through property issues, planning and zoning, and other "brick and mortar" problems that many local businesses face.

The federal government also has gotten involved, with a smart city competition led by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In June 2016, it was announced that Columbus, Ohio, won the competition and the $40 million prize that went with it.

Many private companies were involved in the competition, including Sidewalk Labs, a spinoff of Google parent Alphabet.

Sidewalk has developed two products: Flow, which is a transportation coordination platform that uses analytics and messaging to increase efficiency, and Lync, which is replacing pay phones with communications hubs that will provide free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for Internet browsing, access to city services, maps, and directions in New York City.

Flow is a great example of the challenges of paying for the technology needed to become a smart city. The Sidewalk Labs website suggests that "it is likely to use a subscription-based model in which cities pay for different tiers of data and higher levels of analytic and diagnostic abilities."

The contract for Flow that Columbus is considering "requires that cities distribute transit subsidies through Sidewalk, and accept the company's mobile payments for all existing transit and parking services."3

Lync is an example of the challenges that will be faced when becoming a smart city. In New York City, 400 Lync kiosks were installed that will offer Wi-Fi, charging stations, high-speed Internet access (discontinued after being monopolized by viewers and used to veiw porn), and other amenities.

The program is being offered by New York City and a consortium of private technology companies, and they expect to eventually install 7,500 kiosks. The cost of the technology will be covered by advertising on each kiosk, which is expected to generate more than half a billion dollars in revenue for the city.

LyncNYC is raising security issues among users, who feel that the city has usurped their ability to control their data.4 With both Lync and Flow, another concern that has been raised is that a monopoly is being created that will not leave space for competition among vendors.

More to Learn

The role of local governments in pursing the benefits of smart city technology while minimizing the disadvantages remains to be seen. Clearly, they will be able to purchase technology that will improve efficiency and effectiveness, but the costs can be steep, depending on size of the project and the type of technology deployed.

These costs could perhaps be in the millions, but it is dependent on city or county size and what the technology is. Like most technologies, costs tend to decrease as the technology becomes more common. This can be seen with mobile parking apps.

Because of this, revenue sharing with parking and subscriptions, for example, is likely to be employed by technology companies. When private sector companies make physical investments in fiber installation, they may ask for preferential service and even avoidance of certain regulations. Sharing subsidies meant to address housing, transportation, and infrastructure in underserved areas may also be considered.

ICMA has joined with the Smart City Council to survey chief administrative officers on how they are using smart city technology to improve livability, workability, and sustainability. The results, just released this fall (, will provide valuable data that executives can use to learn more about implementing technology in their communities.

To make the most of coming smart city opportunities, collaboration among local governments will be beneficial. Sharing information about smart city technology implementations at government management association meetings and conferences will build case studies that can inform others.

When the tech company city managers are hired in a region, it is often announced in the media, and management groups can meet with them to better understand how technologies will be deployed regionally.

Sharing contract templates and pricing information, when appropriate, will allow cities to compete on an even playing field. This is an area where transparency in government is a real advantage because local governments can work together to maximize smart city benefits for their residents at a reasonable cost.

Understanding what other communities paid for similar services and products enables managers to ensure they are paying market prices.

Endnotes and Resources:

1 An Internet search of smart cities and a look at the exhibitors and sponsors of Smart City Week show the large number of companies engaged in smart cities.

2 In August 2016, Google had job postings on its website for "city managers" of its fiber division in Los Angeles, California; Dallas, Texas; Austin, Texas; and Chicago, Illinois; and had hired city managers in such cities as San Antonio, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

3 Harris, M. (2016). "Secretive Alphabet division funded by Google aims to fix public transit in US." Retrieved July 08, 2016, from

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