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If Only One U.S. City Wins the Smart City Race, the Whole Nation Loses

Just as it would not make sense to only fund bridges and highways in one city in the United States, it makes no sense to limit investment in the sensors, systems and networks needed to build smart cities to a single location.

Many governments around the world are working diligently to build smart cities — those that use sensors, data and analytics to tackle important urban issues such as how to better manage sanitation systems, improve transportation networks and deliver government services more efficiently. For example, cities can install sensors in water mains to detect leaks or conduct computer-based analysis on real-time video feeds to combat crime. Unfortunately the United States has woefully underinvested in smart city efforts compared to other leading countries. To address this shortcoming, federal, state and local governments should come together to create a new stream of funding for U.S. cities to increase investment in the digital infrastructure they need to ensure they are modern, sustainable and competitive.

The U.S. government has committed approximately $160 million over the next five years to support smart city initiatives. This is a pittance compared to some of the investments other countries are making to develop smart cities. For example, in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a $7.4 billion initiative last year to launch 100 smart cities in the country by 2020. And in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the Smart Nation initiative, which has led to nearly $7.5 billion in technology investments over the past three years.

One of the single largest investments in smart cities in the United States occurred this past June when U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that Columbus, Ohio, had won the Smart City Challenge — a $50 million federal prize awarded for a single city to address important issues such as safety, mobility and climate change through better use of data and technology. This is an important milestone because most smart city projects in the United States, like Chicago’s efforts to build the Array of Things — a network of sensors that collects “real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure and activity for research and public use” — have mostly been small-scale projects focused on a particular application or problem rather than the broad integration of sensors, data and analytics across virtually all public services.

The most impressive aspect of the Smart City Challenge is that so many cities responded to the call. From Anchorage to Atlanta and Albuquerque to Albany, the USDOT received a total of 78 applications representing 85 cities in 36 states. Many of these proposals identified important challenges facing municipalities and proposed novel solutions that leveraged technology to improve the community. For example, Boston outlined its plan to integrate additional sensors, data and analytics with other government systems to combat injuries and fatalities among pedestrians and bicyclists, address disparities in its transportation system, and more.

Unfortunately the Smart City Challenge only funded one city’s proposal, even though many more were also deserving. This is an inadequate approach for funding critical digital infrastructure. Just as it would not make sense to only fund bridges and highways in one city in the United States, it makes no sense to limit investment in the sensors, systems and networks needed to build smart cities to a single location. Instead, policymakers at the city, state and federal levels should be working together to fund promising proposals and develop strong partnerships with the private sector. This could take the form of new grants or repurposing existing funding for physical infrastructure to include digital initiatives.

While there is enormous potential to leverage data-driven innovation to improve the quality of life in urban environments, the United States will need to take action soon if it does not want to fall too far behind in the race to build smart cities.

Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.