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A New Smart City Model Is Emerging

Instead of the sweeping overhaul first envisioned, today’s smart city initiatives are evolving on a far more modest scale.

IBM got the ball rolling a decade ago when it began suggesting that emerging technologies could dramatically change the way cities served their populations. A new wave of sensors, meters, data collection and data processing tools: All these would come together to radically change the urban landscape, to create what came to be known as the “smart city.”

It was a grand vision, a sweeping ambition. “From a technology perspective it was about everything being interconnected and intelligent,” said Jennifer Belissent, principal analyst with Forrester. “Everything would be sensor enabled, there would be data generated by everything around the city and that would make everything smart.”

That vision continues to play out, but not as first formulated. The biggest technology vendors of smart city systems have followed their customers in a trend toward more modest goals. Instead of the sweeping overhaul first envisioned, today’s smart city initiatives are evolving on a far more modest scale. How did all this change come about, where are smart cities today, and where are we heading?

Radical beginnings

City managers had good reason to believe they could radically reshape their processes. Resources had emerged in the IT world unlike any seen before. “The assumption when we started out was that, with unlimited compute and storage and bandwidth — would you run a city the same way? Would you run education and water and waste management the same? No you wouldn’t,” said Anil Menon, president of the Cisco Smart+Connected Communities program.

It was all going to happen at once. Parking management, highway traffic flow, water management. Toxicity sensors would alert for water gone bad. Capacity sensors would tell us when it was time to empty the trash.

It is perhaps not difficult to understand why city managers would have been drawn to a smart city program that offered sweeping changes. We had advanced analytics available as needed, enough to reroute traffic on the fly or to guide emergency response. We had the tools to achieve a new level of collaborative decision-making.

At the same time, changes in the social fabric were pushing city leaders to take action on a big scale, with a growing demand for transparency and accountability. Citizens meanwhile were tapping into a rich vein of technology in their own lives, as they came to understand the potential of the new tools. As they began to see what the technologies could do, they started to expect improvements in the way the urban ecosystem was run.

Some IT vendors were ready and willing to encourage what has been called the “boil the ocean” approach. “We already had expertise in our organization around government administration solutions, around public safety solutions, health care and education,” said Kathryn Willson, program director for the Microsoft CityNext initiative. While technical people across departments were still seeking stovepipe solutions, Microsoft encouraged them to seek bigger things.

When Microsoft launched CityNext on a modest scale in 2013, the press was still predicting big things. “This sort of efficiency could not only save lives during an emergency but also drive day-to-day savings that total millions, and perhaps even billions, of dollars over time,” read one news report.

Today few cities are talking about savings in the billions. Projects have been scaled back. The scope of potential change no longer sprawls across the urban landscape, but rather is limited to more targeted ambitions. What has changed?

Scaling back

The scaling back of the grand vision began, as so often happens, with money. “With the financial crisis, we were seeing businesses closing, we were seeing foreclosures, and for most municipalities that meant a sharp reduction in the budget,” Belissent said. The capital-intensive IT infrastructure projects needed to launch smart city investing suddenly seemed less viable.

At the same time, city managers discovered that their big ambitions were being rapidly thwarted by the nature of their own institutions. Stovepipes and silos were going to be stumbling blocks to across-the-board change.

“You’ve got organizations that each have their own different priorities. One might be looking at public safety while another looks at energy efficiency,” said Toni Oubari. As Verizon’s manager of Smart Communities, she has talked to over 300 mayors and 100 county representatives in researching smart city initiatives. “Sometimes it comes down to who has the most power, when the better way to do it is to look at program management first. What are the top priorities and objectives? That is your framework and you can work from there.”

Finally, local governments have narrowed the scope of their smart city ambitions in response to public demand. “Money helps in the beginning, but there are still people in the mix,” Oubari said. Constituents want to see improvements in specific services, even when a city’s overarching plan may not be moving in those particular directions.

“Maybe there is a chronic drought and you are running out of water,” said Michael Dixon, general manager of IBM Smarter Cities. “The best, most exciting leaps often come from crises. People don’t make the big leaps sitting around the table with nice linen napkins.”

In addition to these varied pressures, city managers slowly came to discover that the new technologies, while promising, were not always ready for prime time. Tools that worked on the lab bench didn’t always deliver when deployed in real-life situations. “Everyone bought into this big-bang vision, but when they started to deploy they discovered the solutions were not fully developed and ruggedized. People couldn’t have known that: These things cannot be tested in the lab. They have to be tested in a living context,” Cisco’s Menon said.

Even when the technology could deliver, other pieces of the puzzle had yet to fall into place. Few technical standards existed that might define best practices or even measure success. That made it hard to deploy at scale, Menon said. Finally, a big plan needs a big infrastructure. “Technology is not the only component to a smart city. It is also about having smart public-private partnerships, smart planning, the integration of physical infrastructure into digital infrastructure.”

Taken together, these diverse factors have pushed a rethink in the smart city program. No one talks about saving billions anymore. Now we talk about traffic lights, trash pickup — the incremental wins that over time might move the needle in the direction of better management and ultimately better living.

First things first

All this brings us to the present day. No one doubts the smart city ambition is going to revolutionize urban management, but it’s going to happen incrementally. What does this mean, in practical terms? Forrester’s Belissent laid out a likely roundup of the low-hanging fruit that will make up initial smart steps in most cities. In fact, many such deployments are already up and running.


As municipalities have scaled back their smart city ambitions — from grand plans to more modest projects — a space has opened up for niche vendors. No longer the sole realm of big-name corporations, smart city technologies are increasingly being purveyed by niche suppliers.

One such vendor is AutoGrid Systems of Redwood Shores, Calif., whose products analyze energy data generated by smart meters, building management systems, voltage regulators, thermostats and other equipment.

The niche play fits into local governments’ overall plans. “The smart city evolution is happening alongside this evolution in the electric grid. So cities view our technology as a tool to integrate all of these sources of energy,” said Quique Schwarz, vice president of products and analytics at the 50-person firm.

As niche players, firms like AutoGrid promise to deliver a level of specific expertise a bigger provider might not possess. “We work with just this problem, so we are able to suggest best practices that we see globally,” Schwarz said.

AutoGrid is hardly alone in its efforts to carve out a space in the shadow of the giants. Consider the recent Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, which drew some 450 exhibitors, many of them niche companies like BreezoMeter (air pollution); Atos Worldgrid (energy management); Dimenteq (GIS solutions); and Black and Veatch (engineering, procurement and construction services).

“There is this fascinating, complicated ecosystem developing, and it is the perfect time for these niche players to have a place at the table,” said IDC analyst Ruthbea Yesner Clarke. “The big vendors have the technology in general, but they may not have the specific expertise.”

There is “a lot of jockeying right now,” as smaller players look to forge alliances and stake out their positions. But many of those players won’t stay small for long. “We will start to see some interesting acquisitions happening as soon as these markets get more mature, once the cities start getting specific budgeting for this,” she said.


There’s an immediate cost savings in going to LED, but the possibilities go further. Light posts become real estate to host Wi-Fi, a place to mount air quality sensors, and stations for attaching cameras that may manage security, traffic or pedestrian activity. All that data can drive economic development and help to determine real estate values. Not bad, for just a lamppost.


Data-driven decision-making can help improve not only commuter traffic management but also the scheduling and routing of public transportation, not to mention optimizing pedestrian and bicycle paths.


Embedded sensors already track available spots on the streets in a growing number of cities, connecting motorists to nearby parking options. Why not also connect drivers to other nearby services and amenities too?

It’s not exactly that cities are thinking smaller. Better to say that they are being strategic, setting their sights on the projects that are technologically, economically and politically doable, as well as those that best meet constituent needs. In particular, they are eager to identify projects that may have some tangible ROI. Oubari points to digital lighting as a way to save on energy costs without a vast capital outlay. (Verizon will build in the upgrade as a monthly cost.) Likewise, digital banners downtown can generate advertising revenue while simultaneously energizing revitalization efforts.

IBM’s Smarter Cities program offers a road map to spur thought among public-sector leaders. Planning and management projects might include public safety and government administration. Infrastructure improvements include water and energy initiatives. “People” solutions embrace health care and education. From these broad headings, technology planners can drill down to specific elements that seem most doable.

One example of how this plays out in practical terms can be seen in IBM’s initiatives in Miami-Dade County, Fla. It started with problems around water distribution. Data collected from smart sensors found that the county itself was the biggest consumer of water. The park system alone drank up roughly 360 million gallons of water per year at a cost of about $5 million.

Asset management tools helped Miami-Dade assess and remediate shortcomings in the system. Officials then realized they could apply these same tools to optimize public transportation routes, overhauling a bus scheduling system built 50 years ago. That transportation data in turn helped to show where people congregate, which then led to the implementation of tools in public safety, from criminal activity data collection to electronic casebooks for police officers.

Lesson learned? “You’ve got to start somewhere,” Dixon said.

Within the city’s IT leadership, “somewhere” may begin not with lampposts or water meters, but rather with an internal infrastructure in need of modernization.

“Most cities so far have been trying to figure out how to squeeze efficiencies out of the systems they have,” said Microsoft’s Willson. For more mature IT organizations, the implementation of smart tools will have to come hand in hand with a smartening up of IT’s underlying bone structure. “Now they are trying to figure out: What is the platform position they need to take to move forward? They are trying to understand the Internet of Things, to understand big data, in order to understand how all of these things are going to fit together.”

Decisions regarding platform will be a key element moving forward, said Joel Cherkis, global vice president at Oracle. “Platform doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘platform as a service,’ although that is its own component. It also points to their underlying infrastructure,” he said. “How is information managed within the city from a security perspective? It’s also about interoperability from the data perspective.”

Platform decisions made up front could determine the success of later efforts. Smart initiatives are more likely to succeed if elements such as education management, transportation and public safety all share a common core of technology, Cherkis said.

For many the key here will lie in a systems-wide migration to the cloud. “When we talk about smart cities, the cloud is what gives us the scale and the computational horsepower to do it,” Willson said. In addition to enabling sheer volume, the cloud also can offer a shared workspace, one that finally breaks down the silos that have long hindered interdepartmental collaboration.

In the smart city trajectory, sweeping ambition has given way to more modest goals. We’ve gone from the City of Tomorrow to an improved parking system. Maybe there is a third way, an approach to smart cities that fits like Baby Bear’s chair: just right.

AT&T envisions such an approach with its Smart Cities Framework. In this model, AT&T teams with a range of partners — Cisco, Deloitte, Ericsson, GE, IBM, Intel and Qualcomm Technologies — to strategize with a city and pull together three to five manageable projects, which are then deployed in a limited geography: 10 blocks on a college campus, or the west end of Dallas. It’s bigger than a one-off but still more manageable than a grand sweep.

“If we can prove it can be done over a narrowly defined area, that gives the city the ammunition to go to their key stakeholders and show that three to five solutions do add more value than siloed point solutions deployed departmentally,” said Mike Zeto, AT&T’s Smart Cities general manager. “You show that a holistic strategy can be deployed and proven. Then you can raise the funds you need to take the key learnings from that framework and deploy them across the city.”

Even as the scope of the smart city ambition has been scaled back, IT managers have more finely honed their ultimate ambition: to make life better. “Today it’s not just about servers and routers,” said Menon. “Now the city managers and deputy mayors are talking about outcomes. How can I decrease congestion? How can I create a better tourist experience? This is a very different conversation than we’ve seen in the past.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.