How Smart is Your City? Using New Technologies for Stronger Communities

Local governments across the state are struggling to keep pace with the accelerating demographic and environmental changes in their communities. As anytime-anywhere personalized access to information and services becomes more pervasive, residents and businesses increasingly expect that same kind of access to city services.

These changes are pressing local leaders to pursue new technologies and data-driven approaches to respond quickly to challenges and prioritize limited resources.

Thankfully, in recent years, technological advances have made the costs of collecting and using data much cheaper for cities. Many areas are updating their water and utilities grids with millions of smart meters and smart sensors that can provide valuable data to guide local policymakers. In homes and offices, smart thermostats and building management systems can similarly help cities use resources more efficiently.

Our streets and highways are becoming smarter through the implementation of intelligent transportation management software, roadway sensors and smart parking apps. Navigation apps and equipment display real-time traffic and give drivers real-time info about the best routes, reducing congestion and associated greenhouse gas emissions and providing a valuable service to residents.

High-bandwidth networks, which now connect one billion computers and four billion cell phones worldwide, are already in place in almost all major cities and can be leveraged for smart-city applications as well as consumer transactions between merchants and their customers. Mobile phones, cheap apps and social media provide free channels for cities to deliver community alerts and updates and gather feedback on constituents’ needs and preferences.

What makes a city “smart”

A “smart city” uses information and communications technology to enhance its livability, workability and sustainability by collecting information about itself through devices such as traffic, weather and building sensors, smart utility meters and GPS locators; communicating that data using the connectivity of wired and wireless networks; and analyzing that data to understand what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen next – to make better decisions.

As our cities become more densely populated, we need to make better use of technology in city planning and decision-making, especially as the associated stresses on our employment, transportation and housing infrastructures increase.

Smart-city technologies can support and enhance local efforts to achieve economic, environmental and social sustainability.

At the same time, technological advances – the pervasiveness of smart phones, for example – increase the public demand for government responsiveness and transparency.

A variety of applications

“Building a smart city requires a systemwide view and an integrated approach,” says the Smart Cities Council. Such implementation strategies can save time and reduce overall costs. The use of these new smart technologies can also help build citizen and business support for municipal improvements and innovations.

The Smart Cities Council summarizes eight areas where communities “can produce wins quickly:”

  • Smart transportation – reduces traffic congestion, reduces commute times, improves transit and bike-ped pathways
  • Energy efficiency – saves energy and money
  • Smart grids – create more reliable and resilient electric service
  • Smart water networks – get water where it needs to go
  • Smart street lights – reduce lighting costs and maintenance demand, host citywide network
  • Public safety and emergency preparedness – use data to help reduce crime and increase police effectiveness
  • Digital government services – move services online to make them more convenient, cheaper and responsive
  • Smart payments – digitize city payments and collections for efficiency and cost savings

Small sensors, big data

With the ever-cheaper costs of sensors these days, it’s getting more practical to measure and track important information to guide local decision-making.

Investments in smart-city technologies are estimated to exceed $27 billion by 2013, according to Navigant Research.

In “Urbanful” earlier this fall, Rachel Kaufman reported that Chicago has installed sensors on thousands of light poles that track noise levels, pedestrian traffic and wind – appropriate for the Windy City.

New York City is using analytics to predict which buildings are most at risk for fires, which helps fire inspectors schedule their time more effectively. Los Angeles is using historical crime data to help the police department dispatch extra patrols to problem areas. Meanwhile, Minneapolis is linking its databases, which lets the City identify landlords violating city codes.

In Detroit, a map and click-to-report app is allowing city officials to keep a closer eye on blight and prioritize which vacant yards to mow or which lots might make a good spot for a community garden or park.

Integrated management

Leveraging virtualization, tablets and smartphones results in greater operational readiness. Source: Smart Cities Council Readiness, p 62.

Smart city technology isn’t just for big cities. In Carson City, Nevada, the municipal water and wastewater systems, solar plants (748,000 kWh a year) and even the traffic lights are controlled by a comprehensive, integrated management system. The system gives city workers full communications over wireless platforms, and gives them instant access to key performance indicators and critical process information on their mobile devices anywhere in the city. City workers are now more aware of and ready to respond to situations, and the amount of man-hours has been reduced by 15%.

Smart wastewater management

In South Bend, Indiana, city pipes and treatment facilities couldn’t handle the volume, so wastewater was spilling into the St. Joseph River and welling up in basements. Initial estimates for upgrading its infrastructure came in at $120 million. Instead, South Bend formed a partnership with Notre Dame University, IBM and EmNet, a local tech company, to devise a new system to monitor and control its wastewater collection – at a cost of only $6 million. The new automated approach included smart valves and sensors to help the city be proactive in its wastewater management and avoid additional infrastructure investments. Notre Dame students created an innovative app for residents to report flooding.

Streamline city processes

In Palo Alto, CA, City officials put their building permit and inspection process online using a variety of innovative apps and a civic cloud platform, cutting wait times and streamlining communications.

The city’s Civic Insight app functions with a menu of features that allow users to locate property permits by street address, create a watch list for status tracking, and receive email alerts as soon as a critical point is reached. Since its launch last February, more than 700 visitors have already signed up for the free service. Read more.

Leadership for incorporating innovations

A number of California communities, including Riverside, Davis and San Jose, have created new positions for innovation officers to help incorporate smart technologies more explicitly and seamlessly into city services.

[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”rfX_T3nRrKY” width=”640″ height=”480″ auto_thumb=”1″]

#Innovate California CIO panel at the
California Leadership Forum

This summer, the City of Riverside launched “Engage Riverside.”

“We had a lot of data and transparency information on all of our websites, but we decided to bring it all together and repackage it under this new branding,” said Riverside Chief Innovation Officer Lea Deesing at the California Leadership Forum in September.

The Engage Riverside portal features a MindMixer platform for community members to share their ideas on a wide range of issues and other interactive tools like Open Data to make it easier for citizens to get information about the budget and city operations – and get more involved in local decision-making. For example, citizens can now add their public comments ahead of Council meetings online without having to attend in-person.

“People can do their own public records searches. We’re being proactive and saving time,” Deesing said.

City leaders also created the nonprofit Smart Riverside, aimed to help narrow the digital divide in their community. Under the Engage Riverside umbrella, anyone making under $45,000 can call 311 to receive eight hours of free computer training, and afterwards, get a free computer. The program is funded through e-waste collection, and teaches at-risk students how to refurbish computers and collect e-waste.

Riverside provides a 24/7 “Virtual City Hall” that allows people to conduct business with the city online. For example, citizens can submit building plans electronically to city departments or email pictures required for a city inspection – rather than having to make a trip to the permit counter. They can still access services in person as well – it is important to keep both models in place for now, Deesing explains, in order to serve the varying preferences of the diverse community, from Baby Boomers to Millennials.

Increasingly in local governments, there are more public-service roles available with open-data and engagement responsibilities. Especially in California’s high-tech regions, people want to work in government because there are also now great opportunities to do entrepreneurial work there – which appeals to Millennials getting started in their careers and experienced professionals in the middle of theirs.

“People will now say, ‘I will take the leap to work in government because this job looks really cool. This is something I can do, I’m an entrepreneur, I have a range of experience and can give back in a meaningful way,'” said Jeremy Goldberg, the Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Civic Innovation (and the former lead for the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership) in San Jose.

These new technologies and government positions help change the way we measure return on investment, and create new opportunities for civic engagement.

“There is a new kind of citizen on the horizon,” said Dustin Haisler, Chief Innovation Officer at e.Republic at the California Leadership Forum. With digital access nearly always at their fingertips, citizens have extra time in their home and in their cars to interact with government. Because of these new and emerging technologies, there is a shift in behaviors, which in turn cause government to come up with new models of engaging with and serving the public. “We have to look at how citizens are changing, how they are nudging governments to make it happen,” Haisler said.

Ahwahnee Conference Session on Smart Cities

These issues will be a focus of the LGC’s annual Ahwahnee Conference for Elected Officials: Innovative Solutions for Changing Communities this March. We are developing a session to highlight the topic of “Smart Cities” at the conference.

More resources

Read more about smart-city technologies and other cities that have used these tools successfully in the Smart Cities Council “Smart Cities Readiness Guide.”

The Smart Cities Council has also assembled a practical “Smart Cities Financing Guide,” which examines more than two-dozen finance tools for investing in smart-city technology and its benefits.

Urbanful article which highlights “8 cities doing cool things with big data”