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CES 2020: Smart City Solutions to Aging Infrastructure

Vendors at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show tackled an oft-discussed goal for municipal leaders, looking at how communities could use smart city technology to transform aging infrastructure.

Vendors at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show tackled an oft-discussed goal for municipal leaders: how communities can leverage smart city solutions to transform aging infrastructure. 

In 2017, the U.S. received a D+ on its infrastructure report card given by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The attached report showed the nation's cities suffered from deteriorating roads and bridges, the likes of which were "impeding our ability to compete" in the global economy and spurring job and GDP losses by the millions and trillions, respectively.     

Panelists at a CES session this month generally agreed that these problems could be tackled through smart initiatives pushed by public-private partnerships. At the same time, they agreed that horizontal collaboration between city agencies will also be a winning strategy for adoption. 

“Every city I talk to — none of them have money," said George Karayannis, vice president of Panasonic's CityNOW. "They all have infrastructure that generally needs to be upgraded and/or replaced," he added, highlighting the budgetary shortfalls many communities face.

The model for those collaborations can be seen in CityNOW's own work: The division, which seeks to create "human-centric communities that are resilient, sustainable and digitally integrated," has partnered frequently with Denver over the last few years to implement multi-million-dollar automated vehicle and traffic programs. It also recently installed a bevy of smart street lights, sensors and solar panels in one of the city's neighborhoods — and has stated it wants to turn the whole surrounding municipal area into a smart city by 2026. 

Creating smart city departments within administrations could be another way to advance initiatives, offered Suzanne Murtha, with global infrastructure firm AECOM. Murtha, who is president of the company's Connected and Automated Technology division, said that much like cities have transportation and sanitation departments, governments should also form smart departments, so that efforts are organized and centralized under one office. 

The problem is "not just the fact that communities don’t have money, but the bigger opportunity that [communities are missing, which] ... is an opportunity for all those different agencies in the city to come together and find a way to fund something broad across all of them that can be impactful," Murtha said. 

Murtha also said cities should look into attached usage charges as a funding mechanism. Much like New York City's controversial "pay-to-drive" plan, attaching fees to infrastructure usage could prove a smart way of paying for projects.

"Quite often in the public sector, we disconnect payment for a service with the use of a service and so it devalues our infrastructure and the use of our infrastructure and the services we provide," she said.  

AECOM recently began supporting an automated bus consortium — which pooled the resources of its client members to purchase  as many as 100 automated buses, the likes of which will soon be used for pilot projects in various cities

Karen Lightman, executive director with the Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said that a good case study for a community in need of smart solutions for infrastructure is the city where she lives, Pittsburgh, which is also a community that lost nearly half its population over a period of several decades and suffered from bankruptcy for years. Lightman said that while the city is now growing both its population and tax base, there is a real need for investment in physical and digital infrastructures.  

Tax structures to drive revenue for these projects have to be considered carefully, said Lightman, cautioning that the payment method put forward has to have citizens in mind.

Panelists also admitted the process of transformation for many communities will be long term. 

"This is a destination, not a journey," said Karayannis. "We're talking about decades and decades of investment." 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.