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CES 2017: Sensors, Innovators Key in Furthering Smart Cities

Two panels at CES 2017 critiqued the move toward smart cities, agreeing efforts must be individualized and that the U.S. is somewhat behind other nations — but catching up.

LAS VEGAS — Technology is integral to smart cities, but these cities' leaders must focus on what to get done with the many forms of intelligence now available, a group of CES 2017 panelists discussing technology’s role in smart city infrastructure agreed Thursday morning.

For Egan Smith, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s managing director of intelligent transportation systems joint program office, a smart city is defined as one that uses information and community technology to really enhance performance. But he and other panelists agreed that each city’s journey will be different.

“It’s not leading with the technology, it’s leading with the issues. The problems mayors [have] are the same problems they had 30 years ago,” said Jim Doyle, president of Panasonic Enterprise Solutions, a division of Panasonic Corp. of North America. “I think the most important point is, don’t lead with the shiny new technology. You’ve got to get to the core issues of what that city’s trying to address.”

European and Asian cities have led the smart revolution, said T.J. Costello, director of Internet of Things for Cisco U.S., noting Copenhagen’s push to become carbon-neutral. But, he added, the Americas are catching up.

“Is there a sort of trajectory toward enlightenment here, or is it just catch as catch can?” asked panel moderator Laura Bliss, a staff writer for Atlantic magazine who covers infrastructure, transportation and maps.

All cities are typically trying to achieve the same vision, said George O’Neal, Hyperloop One’s director of controls, noting commonalities of wanting to boost connectedness and the ability to move goods and people quickly.

“You have different resources, different economic conditions,” he said. “I do think … it’s hard to say exactly what a smart city is.”

Costello added that each city has a different need, both geographically, politically, economically. "But that’s the best part of it," he said. "It’s not locked into one. It’s unique."

Siloing and duplication practices, however, will need to change, said Doyle, whose company Panasonic is partnering with the city of Denver on the Pena Station Next smart city, and with the state of Colorado on the Road X highway safety project.

“You drive down the streets in the United States and come to a traffic stop and there are nine cameras,” he said. “Why do you need nine cameras? You probably only needed two or three. What we are starting to see is where those cities are stepping back and saying ‘Let’s focus on the vision.’ ”

And when that happens, a natural result is a narrowing of that focus.

“A big part of it, too, is do you need to do all that?” Doyle said, meaning that each city's path to becoming a smart city will differ -- and likely not realize all goals immediately.

Smart Cities Must Deal With Bureaucracy, Even Limit Tech

Afternoon panelists on the Jan. 5 “Cities of the Future” discussion critiqued smart cities, noting that bureaucracy must be managed and technology harnessed if it is to truly make urban centers better places to live.

Technology, said Beverly Rider, GE’s chief commercial officer — digital, has limits, even if the future now looks very bright for smart cities.

“We don’t want to push technology into everything," Rider said. "We want to use technology to its best end, to make our lives and our children’s lives better."

Brenda Connor, head of Ericsson’s smart cities and intelligent transport systems teams, echoed Cisco’s Costello in noting that goals must be tailored.

“When you talk about smart, sustainable cities, it’s a personal solution. The traditional model of, ‘I’m going to build something and sell it everywhere’ breaks down and it opens up the door for these innovators,’” Connor said, pointing out that snow removal plans in Montreal are irrelevant in parts of Florida.

Panelist Dave Roegge, director of segment marketing for panel sponsor UPS, said his company is partnering with the city of Atlanta, Ericcson, AT&T and others to create a smart environment in Atlanta’s north quarter.

The goal, he said, is to improve public safety while simultaneously reducing UPS's own mileage and emissions. Doing both means sharing data between companies and agencies, he said, not siloing.

“Our trucks are basically on every street in Atlanta on a daily basis and we can provide the city with real-time information on road conditions, collisions, other safety issues," Roegge said, "and that can help them predict things in the future."

Sensors will be key in smart cities, Rider said, but so will innovators.

“Anybody with a good idea can really help us thread the technology in new ways. For me it’s not about ‘I’m going to make this light bulb smart.’ It’s about what’s next,” she said, and what that smart light bulb can accomplish.

Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains called his government an enabler, one that believes the economy and the environment go hand in hand — but he said government needs to do a better job.

“We’re making historic investments in infrastructure. We’re going through red tape reduction issues,” Bains said. “I think we have to get our act together."

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.