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When Planning a Smart City, Is it Best to Think Big?

A year into AT&T’s smart cities framework, a clear vision has emerged.

by / January 20, 2017

A year ago AT&T launched its smart cities framework, bundling together a range of products and services in support of technology leaders looking to build connected cities.

Since then the company has signed on a number of cities to a range of projects. The roster includes Atlanta; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Chicago; Dallas; the Georgia Institute of Technology; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; and Montgomery County, Md. Their projects encompass diverse areas including water sustainability, smart lighting and civic connectivity.
A year into the effort, AT&T’s lead smart-city executive said a clear lesson has emerged: If you’re thinking smart city, it’s best to think big.
“We have seen all these requests for proposals being issued in silos — something specific to intelligent LED lighting or to autonomous vehicle demonstrations or to water meters,” said Mike Zeto, general manager and executive director of AT&T Smart Cities. “We think cities need to develop more holistic strategies.”
When cities take a piecemeal approach to smart enhancements, “the risk is that you may get just that one implementation, and that is all,” Zeto said. “A truly holistic strategy works with all the departments, with the public and the private sectors and the universities. That way you get to tap more funding models, you get more partners and you add more value to the citizens.”
AT&T’s think-big approach urges cities to take on three to five smart city projects at a time in order to build momentum and leverage relationships across government.

The big game

The company’s yearlong foray into smart cities has generated an extensive roster of implementations.
Miami-Dade County implemented AT&T’s Smart Cities Operation Center, a platform designed to give civic leaders visibility into the community. It also has undertaken public safety upgrades, put in place new decision-making tools around transportation, and rolled out smart LED lighting. In addition, the city has expanded Wi-Fi availability in the schools as part of its efforts.
In Atlanta, city leaders are testing a range of technologies along the Avenue corridor, which borders the Georgia Tech campus, where Mayor Kasim Reed said he's looking for ways to enhance availability of real-time data to improve residents’ lives. The city also is working with GE and Georgia Power to deploy intelligent LED lighting solutions.
In Chicago, transit has been a key area of interest. AT&T has helped implement civic tech in the form of smart digital transportation boards in Chicago O'Hare International Airport, to aid travelers with their ground transportation planning. At the same time, select bus shelters have been outfitted with free Wi-Fi, intelligent lighting and digital displays.
The breadth of these examples helps to bear out Zeto’s call for smart initiatives that take a wide approach to city issues. Still, some might see this as a break from the norm. In recent years, many cities have in fact been looking to scale down the scope of their smart initiatives.

Middle ground?

A decade ago, “it was about everything being interconnected and intelligent,” Forrester principal analyst Jennifer Belissent told Government Technology in June. “Everything would be sensor enabled, there would be data generated by everything around the city and that would make everything smart.”
That sweeping agenda has been rolled back. Many government technology leaders now say that cities would do best to initiate narrow, tightly focused efforts to enhance civic tech. Rather than re-envision the urban landscape in its entirely, cash-strapped cities have opted to take small steps, scoring clear wins on discreet projects with an eye toward building something bigger over time.
Some observers see AT&T’s approach over the past year as reflecting a kind of middle ground. The company has the muscle to bring multiple partners and diverse technologies to the table, so it can take a broad approach, encouraging government tech leaders to pursue the big picture, while still helping cities to deliver on specific end goals.
“They are talking holistic, but three to five solutions still seems like a small, piecemeal solution,” said IDC Analyst Ruthbea Yesner Clarke. “We see a number of bigger vendors doing this: providing a common layer, then delivering one or two projects and hoping it will scale.”
She pointed to IBM and Verizon as examples of similar platform-based smart city efforts.
It may be a matter of semantics: Three or four projects in a given city may represent a holistic embrace, or they may be just a coincidence of isolated projects. To Yesner Clarke, a true big-picture approach isn’t defined by the number of projects, but by how they intersect.
“When you have a video camera with a data feed that goes to multiple departments for multiple uses, that is a citywide solution. I don’t think that is happening yet,” she said.
AT&T’s approach may point in that direction, as it aims to integrate activity in four key areas: 
  • Secure connectivity is a mainstay of the smart city.
  • Platforms and applications may drive data use in traffic, public safety, cyber or other areas.
  • Vertical integrated solutions address specific niche needs, whether in traffic, civic Wi-Fi, lighting or other areas.
  • Alliances are key. “In smart cities no one company does it all,” Zeto said. “It is an ecosystem play, and you need to bring together the right partners to add value.”
A holistic approach implies working all these various aspects simultaneously toward a single vision of connectedness. If that seems like a big bite to try to take, Zeto said, the key to success lies in getting as many players as possible to the table right from the start.
“A lot of this isn’t about the pilots or the deployments. It’s about making sure your local ecosystem is engaged, past just city government,” he said. Local economic development groups, universities and civic organizations all should be part of the conversation, ideally in the form of a smart city committee. He pointed for example to Smart Columbus, a group that has garnered tens of millions of dollars in backing through its coordinated efforts.
To go beyond the piecemeal approach it also helps to have a champion, a director of smart cities who answers to the CIO. “You need one person who has the responsibility for directing and managing this,” he said.


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. 

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