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In the World of Smart Cities, No One Wants a ‘One-Hit Wonder’

Too often, urban technology doesn’t scale across cities because it’s simply not ready for prime time, experts argued at the recent Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in National Harbor, Md.

Two cars on a roadway.
The Curiosity Lab in Peachtree Corners, Ga., has installed solar power generation panels into the paving surface.
Submitted Photo/Curiosity Lab
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Getting a small smart city pilot project to be successful in an innovation district is the easy part. But getting that same project to scale across an entire city — or cities — is another feat altogether.

“Sure, you’ve done it in Peachtree Corners. Congratulations, you’ve done one city block. Fantastic. How are you going to do that in Roanoke? How are you going to do that in Duluth?” remarked Karen Lightman, executive director for Metro21, calling attention to Peachtree Corners, Ga., an Atlanta suburb known for its courting of urban tech companies. The entire small city is seen as an innovation district.

But too often, what happens within these small test areas falls into that unfortunate basket of “one-hit wonders,” said Lightman, during a panel discussion she was moderating at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo Nov. 28.

“Why can’t we go beyond ‘one-hit wonders’?” Lightman asked, pointing to issues like prioritizing technology over serving a real need within the community.

“There’s a lot of reasons why things, we can’t scale,” offered Lilian Coral, senior director for the Open Technology Institute. Coral was also the director of national strategy and tech innovation with the Knight Foundation and served as chief data officer for the city of Los Angeles.

Coral went on to note that too often, the tech is just not yet ready for deployment.

“The company and the technologists are pushing that the tech really is [ready.] And then we all keep going back and forth on why it’s not working,” said Coral, during the panel. “And that’s what creates distrust, and that’s what doesn’t allow these things to scale.”

The self-driving car was offered as an example of technology rich with hype and low on results. A decade ago autonomous vehicles were pitched as the near-future of mobility. Today, amid pull back by companies like Cruise, the overall thrust of the movement seems to have pivoted toward deploying small autonomous shuttles.

“If we had actually piloted, and engaged, and employed the community, we would have gotten to that solution sooner,” said Coral.

“We don’t actually have the digital infrastructure in our cities to support a lot of this emerging technology,” she added. “Until we actually start to talk about digital infrastructure … I don’t actually think we’re going to get to scale, because what are we scaling out to.”

The message for the private-sector tech companies was to “lean into” communities more, let them tell you what they need. It’s what Coral characterized as “being vulnerable.”

“At the same time cities need to be more open to the fact that we have to try these things, and we can’t be so scared that if it fails it’s going to be on the front of the newspaper,” said Coral. “If we don’t get to piloting and testing and deploying and learning, we’re never going to actually get to continue to grow and build that progress.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.