Articles

How to Make Smart City Investments Count

Leaders of five major projects talk about what smart components they have and how they made those choices.

by / September 29, 2015
To prioritize smart city investments in Las Vegas, the IT team turned to rapid prototyping — quick pilots requiring little investment. Jacob Surland, caughtinpixels.com / via Flickr

The list is virtually boundless. When one looks at all the elements that may go into making up a smart city, it’s a smorgasbord of possibilities. Energy metering, neighborhood revitalization, sustainability, waste management, intelligent parking meters — from major projects to minor tweaks, it can be hard to know where to begin.

That’s just the point: Where to begin? For technologists looking to move in the direction of smarter cities, which of the many possibilities ought to percolate up to the top of the list? Moreover, how do you make the call? By what criteria will a savvy planner decide which smart components should be tackled first?

While Toronto CIO Rob Meikle is thrilled to have such a broad range of smart choices emerging from the IT community, he’s also tentative. “If you are not careful, you can be chasing a whole lot of things and not necessarily be getting the outcomes and the value you were hoping to achieve,” he said.

We asked tech leaders in five major cities: What smart components do you have, and how did you make those choices?

LAS VEGAS / The “ready, fire, aim” approach


What they have.
As it recovers from the recession, Las Vegas is getting double duty from its smart infrastructure. The same light posts and parking meters that track public safety and public works soon will be spitting out coupons for passers-by, said CIO Joe Marcella, who retired in August.

The city also combined citizen access with public works, planning, building and safety functions. Developers can enter the system at any point and access all needed services, rather than bounce from office to office. “Everything they want to do is less expensive and more expedited,” said Marcella.

Some ideas fell off the table. Communitywide wireless? Not worth it. Everyone has a phone — who uses a tablet walking down the street? And the casinos charge for Wi-Fi, so why step on their toes? Likewise, vendors have proved of little use. One company did an extensive survey of city services and came up with only one possible improvement: an upgrade in the parking ticket system, which the city was already pursuing.


Former Las Vegas CIO Joe Marcella. Photo by Square Shooting.

How they got here.
To prioritize these smart city investments, the IT team turned to rapid prototyping. With a handful of ideas on the table, they started cranking out light versions of possible solutions — quick pilots requiring little investment. Marcella calls it a “ready, fire, aim” approach. Try it and if it doesn’t work, move on. This tactic gave him a quick, rough read on feasibility.

“No idea is a bad idea. Every one of them deserves to be vetted, and some of them deserve to be tried. We are not afraid to make those kinds of mistakes,” he said.

In one famous example from industry, Rolls-Royce spent millions of dollars and many years ensuring its aircraft engines would continue running even if a chicken got sucked into them. Rapid prototyping can pick a winner quicker and cheaper. “Get your chicken test done early,” Marcella said.
 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. / Looking for maximum impact


What they have.
CIO Peter Ambs is thinking big and small. In the grand scheme, he’s smartening up the permitting application process in the city’s planning department. As in many cities, permitting in Albuquerque has been something of a baroque endeavor.

Now things are changing with the creation of a self-service process, due to go live this fall.

At the same time, Ambs is working on parking awareness: specifically sensors that identify open spots. A limited rollout stalled as planners discovered their efforts to redirect drivers to available meters didn’t generate any added revenue. Now they’re tweaking the plan, spending $50,000 to track open spaces in parking garages, where availability is more limited. It’s a big service for disabled drivers.

“We want to try to pilot things and see if they work or not, to see what the value is, and then if we do see some value we can take it to the next step,” said Brian Osterloh, associate CIO.

Sensors+are+coming+to+parking+garages+in+Albuquerque.
Sensors are coming to parking garages in Albuquerque.

How they got here.
Smart choices begin with elected officials. “What do the mayor and council want to see? What aligns with the mayor’s goals?” Ambs said. “The mayor may not say, ‘We want smart meters.’ But he may say he wants technology to make government more efficient and he wants technology to improve the way government interacts with the community. It’s not scripted, but it is definitely clear.”

With this in mind, the tech team begins to look at what is possible. “The first thing we do is sit down and educate ourselves. We look at what is out there, we see what is in the market, we talk to others around the country.”

Then the IT shop loops back to the mayor with proposals, a concept report that sparks a dialog as to the possibilities. Those conversations continue into the departments. “In the beginning it is a fairly broad discussion, us going out to talk to them about what their goals are and how we might be able to assist. That is the main point: That we are there to assist,” Ambs said.

Before moving ahead, technology planners will ditch the losers. Someone proposed smart fire hydrants to help speed snow cleaning in a city that gets less than a foot of snow a year. “So this thing you are looking at, does it make sense for you?” he said. “I hope we don’t ever come up with a solution that only allows somebody to report a lost dog. If it is so focused in nature, we are probably doing a disservice to the community.”
 

NEW YORK CITY / Technology for the people


What they have.
Tech planners in the Big Apple are trying to close the digital divide, said CTO Minerva Tantoco.

Twenty-two percent of city households don’t have Internet, and the city is aiming to provide affordable or free home Internet to all by 2025. Another project, LinkNYC, will offer citywide Wi-Fi. It’s free to taxpayers, with digital advertising picking up the tab. In fact, planners say it will generate more than $500 million in revenue for the city over the next 12 years.

New York City also is helping to smarten up the privately developed, $20 billion Hudson Yards commercial and residential area. Smart tech will digitally track environmental and lifestyle factors such as traffic, energy consumption and air quality. Underground pneumatic tubes will whisk away trash.


Smart technology will track traffic and other factors in New York’s Hudson Yards. Photo courtesy of Related-Oxford.

Other projects will aim to reduce greenhouse gases, cut down on garbage and save water through replacement of conventional water meters. Smart traffic lights will speed buses on their routes.

How they got here.
As city IT planners ponder the multitude of smart city options laid out before them, their first concern is that benefits should apply to all. The citywide Internet plan is a prime example: Equitable gain is a driving principle, Tantoco said. “This is a good technology. Now let’s make sure it works for everyone.”

Smart upgrades have to address a tangible good; they must deliver something that makes life more livable. There are any number of truly mind-blowing smart tools out there in the marketplace, but that’s not the point. “It’s about technology for the people, as opposed to technology for technology’s sake,” she said.

Another factor that can boost a project up the list — or drop it off the roster — has to do with control. The city was approached by a vendor offering street sensors, a nifty and practical product. But the vendor wanted to own the data, and the city had to walk away. Privacy issues seemed to loom, and in any case, there was the principle of the thing. It made no sense for New York City to barter away a potentially valuable asset.

Finally there is the principle of multiple benefits. Take the bus-friendly traffic lights. The city’s smart goals include reducing greenhouse emissions, generating economic impact and making life more pleasant for residents. An investment in traffic management fulfilled all three criteria, making it money well spent.
 

ATLANTA / First things first — fiber


What they have.
In Atlanta these days it’s all about the infrastructure. For CIO Samir Saini, the first move toward smart city status is the deployment of a robust municipal fiber network.

Atlanta+CIO+Samir+Saini
Atlanta CIO Samir Saini. Photo by David Kidd.

The fiber itself isn’t the smart part, but rather the means to an end. When the council and mayor declared the city needed to massively upgrade its traffic signals in response to traffic snarls of legendary proportions, the first question the technologists asked was: How?

The answer began with fiber, a necessary first step for all smart advances. What else will it support? No one knows yet, but Saini is making sure the infrastructure will be there for whatever comes next. “If you are going to dig and lay fiber, you are obligated to think about all your smart city needs, whether they exist today or not, because you don’t want to dig again,” he said. While the cost of the fiber network is still being worked out, a $250 million city infrastructure bond will help make it real.

How they got here.
As the CIO looks to organize smart projects, he’s driven by “urgent need” as it percolates up from the citizenry and is eventually expressed by the council and the mayor. How does that landscape look today?

Public safety is a priority. “There’s a growing need for our police department to deploy surveillance cameras, especially in high-crime zones,” along with license plate readers and other HD-resolution sensors, Saini said.

Cost savings also rank high. Today many civic buildings lease broadband from various providers. Smart use of fiber could demolish that expense.

Urgent need may cover a lot of ground. “We have aging pipes, so do we want to put sensors on the water network? Do we want to look at smart lighting on these thousands of poles across the city? Do we switch these regular lights to LED, which in itself would reduce cost, and do we want to have some capability to control those lights through software solutions?” he said.

In the big picture, elected officials, expressing the public sentiment, will guide these choices. “Ultimately everything needs to tie back to the mayor’s priorities, otherwise why are we doing it?” Saini said.
 

TORONTO / Clear purpose, tangible benefits


What they have.
The revitalization of Waterfront Toronto is not just a rehab project. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, wipe-the-slate-clean opportunity, said CIO Rob Meikle.

A new face for this 2,000-acre plot of defunct industrial land will cost $1.5 billion in equal thirds from the city, the province and the national government. Over the next 25 years, that money will help to pay for 40,000 homes, almost 800 acres of open and park space, and business uses.


Smart technology will help transform Toronto’s waterfront. Photo courtesy of Waterfront Toronto.

Open-access high-speed broadband will serve residential and business interests, while a 350,000-square-foot, public-private innovation center will support aspiring businesses. It is predicted to attract some 2,000 workers.

At the same time, the city’s IT leaders have been working on behalf of a very different segment of the population with the introduction of the City Services Benefit Card. Some 100,000 residents receive a social financial subsidy, and many of them cash their checks at service providers where they may pay up to a 20 percent surcharge. The smart benefits card works like a debit card, giving recipients a sense of social inclusion, saving them the check cashing fees and saving the city $1 million a year in expenses related to cutting checks.

How they got here.
Meikle’s first step in prioritizing his smart projects has been to formalize goals. In a sense his ambitions are obvious: Make Toronto a better place to live, work and play. Make it more competitive. Drive economic prosperity and encourage sustainability. No big surprises there, “but we do need to spell out that purpose. Otherwise what are we doing? If the purpose is unknown, deviation is inevitable; abuse is inevitable,” he said. Last year the IT shop created a formal model for smart improvements, and a subcommittee of the council signed off on it.

Beyond the broad ambition, the plan also calls for more specific benchmarks in judging potential projects. “We look at time to market and speed to implement. If there is something you can do but it takes 10 years, we want to drive value sooner rather than later,” Meikle said. Another litmus test: Does it deliver? “If we implement this particular initiative, what will be the tangible outcomes and benefits for the city?”

Just as there are a large number of possible smart projects to pursue, there is also a variety of ways to prioritize one’s choices: Follow the mayor’s lead. Stick to what is technologically achievable. Base your choice on the broadest possible good among the citizens. The point, perhaps, is to make a plan and stick to it. Define priorities and make them guiding stars, shedding light on the still-emerging landscape of smart cities. 

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.