The smart city movement is off to a roaring start, as smart cities initiatives currently benefit from federal funding to the tune of $240 million pledged over the last year and a half. This is great news for the 70 or so cities that have received or applied for government money. But what about the other nearly 20,000 cities and towns across the U.S.? There’s no reason any of them should hold back on developing their own smart communities, even if they’re working with shoestring budgets.
Without a doubt, smart cities are still in their infancy. We have yet to prove what a truly smart city can do, and yet a myth has already been perpetuated that they have to be expensive and complicated to implement, the process from concept to execution is long and arduous, and their value remains questionable. To date, smart cities have by and large been limited to high density population centers, largely because of the perceived costs associated in building out infrastructure (hence the need for federal funding).
It doesn’t have to be this way. Transformational infrastructure already resides in smartphones and broadband as enabling technologies. Cities can harness the piping that’s already there, keeping costs low. With advances in technology that are already in place, including the proliferation of Internet of Things technology and devices, truly any city or town can be smart and reap the benefits. The silver bullet is in the software.
At the root, smart cities run on a software-based platform that connects everything, and with the December 2016 Senate approval of the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act, to make federal agency data open and machine readable by default, federal agencies may soon be required to publish their information to data.gov in a nonproprietary, machine-readable format. This data source will be a treasure trove to accelerate the interconnected, open software movement powering smart cities.
And software will serve as the organizing force to connect stakeholders, just as it has in other sectors. For example, Airbnb and Uber have done a masterful job of utilizing common technologies and software to build an extremely powerful citizen-fueled commerce engine in large cities. It is easy to get a room or a ride in New York to L.A. to South Bend, Ind., to Athens, Ga. If a municipality had the ability to “smartly” regulate an Airbnb experience, it could ensure the safety, security, permitting and even revenue collection in the local community.
Rather than reinventing an entire infrastructure, these companies have leveraged existing assets (other people’s houses and cars), and in so doing have given rise to the “transaction economy.” This is exactly the mentality smart cities need to adopt if they really want to serve their citizens.
Smart cities can be more than cities that enable the government to connect out to the people, disseminating messages and altering traffic patterns. They can help citizens participate in the transaction economy. How? Give them a common place to sell their goods or tout their restaurants, list their event times or rent out a campsite for the weekend.
The smartest cities will connect residents and visitors to content, community and commerce so that others can see the world through local eyes. People will have a single place to turn to find out anything they need to know about a town, while officials can open communication channels with citizens, create a collaborative environment and truly serve the people of their communities.
By showcasing what’s already great in cities and towns across America, local governments can make an immediate, yet long-term impact on their local economy. They can help Main Street thrive, small businesses flourish and independent artisans prosper in the Amazon age. Governments can play a supportive role as opposed to an exclusionary one. All they need are the right tools and a big enough vision.
By partnering with technology companies that design software to connect communities, local governments will also find a new level of efficiency that ushers them into a whole new modern age and streamlines operations in the process. This is the vision of a smart city — one that delivers services more efficiently and sustainably, and ultimately improves citizens’ quality of life.
Chris Maxwell is the CTO of DigitalTown.