Smart Cities and the Internet of Things – Do Policymakers Help? Or Hurt?

The Center for Data Innovation hosted a forum to examine how – or if – regulators and bureaucrats are part of the solution or part of the problem.

by / December 5, 2014
[Left to right] Hilary Cain, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy, Toyota; Dan Hoffman, Chief Innovation Officer, Montgomery County, Maryland; Tonnetta Oubari, Business Development and Strategy Manager, Verizon; and Alan Roth, Senior Executive Vice President, US Telecom, participate in a panel discussion titled How Can Policymakers Help Build the Internet of Things?

Get government out of the way or get government involved in taking charge? It’s a common question asked when discussing how to stimulate innovation.

As in most things, the reality is likely somewhere in between. When it comes to building the smart cities of the future, no single technology and no single policy will prove a silver bullet. On Wednesday, December 4, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Data Innovation sought to prod those squishy middle areas when it hosted at the Newseum a panel discussion titled How Can Policymakers Help Build the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things (IoT), nebulous as its definition might be, is generally agreed to be the vast, ever-growing family of devices that are connected to one another via the Internet. Cisco, for example, estimates that by 2020 there will be 50 billion connected devices on the planet. These devices are creating the foundation for the IoT – an environment in which everything produces data.

As urbanization trends continue and a majority of humanity soon lives in a city environment, the smart cities will be those that not only understand why IoT is important but are actively engaged in expanding IoT into city infrastructure. The question facing the panel Wednesday was how much a role should the public sector play in facilitating the development of the IoT and, ultimately, smart cities.

Setting the table was Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). Fischer said she believes the IoT has the potential to elevate the United States’ economy.

“If properly channeled the Internet of Things can be a game changer for the United States,” she said. “It gives people more information, it you gives you better tools to analyze the data.” But, she added, it won’t matter if dated federal rules can’t be modernized, suggesting that the U.S. government ought to “think about how to modernize its regulatory frameworks” as they relate to technological innovation.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) followed with a similar sentiment while perhaps offering some veiled criticism of regulatory agencies in general.

“I think there is a tremendous opportunity as we welcome the new Congress to examine the Internet of Things,” she said. “How we look at this going forward is going to be critical for the United States to remain a leader in innovation. What we need to do is to ensure, as policymakers, we continue to encourage that innovation.” Later, Ayotte suggested that “If all regulators looked with some humility at how technology is used and whether we need to regulate, we would stand to benefit.”

Several panels followed, keying in on all things smart – smart cities, smart devices, smart infrastructure and smart homes. Whether any of these smart things become reality is largely dependent on data – much of it to be generated by the IoT. Panelist agreed that such data discussions continue to stoke the usual hand-wringing over ownership and privacy.  

Chris Irwin, Smart Grid Standards and Interoperability Coordinator at the Department of Energy, said keeping data open ought to assuage such concerns.  

“A characteristic for anyone that participates in the Internet of Things should be data liberation,” he said. “The data is not meant to be held captive.”

Dan Hoffman, Chief Innovation Officer of Montgomery County, Maryland, recounted public outcry that took place following the county’s installation of smart meters. Looking at the push back from just smart meters, he said, imagine how much education and engagement will be needed to do the really interesting stuff.

The present panic about data security is resulting in the U.S. trailing other countries that are more eagerly adopting smart city solutions, said Hilary Cain, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at Toyota.

“The U.S. is behind other countries in terms of deployment of intelligent infrastructure. In Japan there has been a very strong effort by the government to deploy intelligent infrastructure. In Japan [Toyota helped] deploy vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology in 2009. We haven’t been able to deploy it in the U.S. because there just isn’t infrastructure for vehicles to communicate with.”

Cain cited the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. In that country, thanks in part to the V2I technology in place, Japanese officials were able to activate and monitor vehicle GPS systems to map where those fleeing the tsunami were going to figure out in real time where traffic was clogging and assist with rerouting evacuees. In the U.S., Cain said, we could never do this because of hysteria about privacy.

Even if they’re not yet “smart”, American cities today are already awash in data, said Tonnetta Oubari, Business Development and Strategy Manager at Verizon.

“Cities have quite a bit of data, they’re just not making adequate use of it,” she said, adding later that “There is no way you can have a smart city without having an open infrastructure. It has to be open and open data has to be communicated to citizens. There is so much cities can do by collaborating with constituents.”

Getting to that point requires changing some of the archaic framework government regulators operate within, said US Telecom Senior Executive Vice President Alan Roth, echoing the remarks of Sen. Ayotte and Sen. Fischer.

“It’s going to require rethinking of things like permitting, rights of way, and land use. From the standpoint of smart cities – there’s a lot of rethinking that needs to be done in terms of handling those things efficiently,” Roth said.

Oubari argued that the true role of policymakers in fostering the development of smart cites is to provide a vision. “The cities where [smart city development] is successful have a visionary – it might be the mayor, the city manager, the CIO,” she said.

Montgomery County’s Hoffman and other panelists also tried to move the needle on the adoption of public-private partnerships. Hoffman conceded that government can’t make smart cities a reality on its own. Like Oubari, Hoffman said that that policymakers have demonstrate why data, the IoT, and ultimately the smart city is important.

“It’s incumbent on us show it, to make it real to people, to show the benefits [of being a smart city],” he said.

This story was originally published by FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.