Many larger municipalities have embraced the “smart city” concept in recent years, but definitions of the term — and examples of the ways technology is being used to make cities “smart” — run the gamut. Mayors and city CIOs usually talk about using sensors to, say, wirelessly manage streetlights and traffic signals to lower energy costs, and they can provide specific returns on investment for such initiatives — x millions of dollars saved over y amount of time, for example.
Other examples include using sensors to monitor water mains for leaks (and thereby reduce repair costs), or to monitor air quality for high pollution levels (which would yield information that would help people with asthma plan their days). Police can use video sensors to manage crowds or spot crimes. Or sensors might determine that a parking lot is full, and then trigger variable-message street signs to direct drivers to other lots.
Smart cities as places for fun
Those are some of the countless practical examples. But smart cities can also be fun. In Bristol, England, a custom-built infrared sensor system was added to street lamps for a few weeks in late 2014 to record the shadows of pedestrians walking by. The shadows were then projected back through the streetlights for others walking by later to see.
Called “Shadowing” and developed by Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier, the initiative was intended as a public art installation. A winner of a Playable City Award, “Shadowing” helps illustrate how broad and elusive the definition of “smart city” has become.
That’s a good thing.
“A smart city shouldn’t just save money, but should also be attractive and fun to live in,” said Carl Piva, vice president of strategic programs at TM Forum, a global nonprofit association with 950 member organizations whose aim is to guide research into digital business transformation, including smart city initiatives.
“Being a smart city is more than being efficient and involves turning it around to make it fun,” Piva said.
In Kansas City, officials are working with Cisco to install various sensors, including controls from Sensity Systems, for new LED streetlights to improve operating efficiency. Other smart city sensors could be added later.
The Bristol “Shadowing” project was discussed at a recent forum in Yinchuan, China, attended by politicians and technology experts from around the world, Piva said. It was introduced by Paul Wilson, managing director of Bristol Is Open, a joint venture of the Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol that’s devoted to creating an “open, programmable city region” made possible by fast telecom networks and the latest software and hardware.
“Many smart city projects don’t have immediate ROI attached,” Piva said. “My personal reflection is that technology of the future will become more and more invisible to individuals, and the best success criteria will be people not really even noticing the technology. For the time being, that means seeing a lot of technology trying to talk to us or engage with us in various ways. Every city mayor and everybody running for election is now invested in making his city smart. You sort of need to attract businesses and want to attract individuals with talent and make it a prosperous place, to make it livable and workable.”
Piva said he has noticed that some cities want to focus on building technology communities, which seems to be a significant part of what Kansas City, Mo., is doing with an innovation corridor coming to an area with a new 2.2-mile streetcar line.
Other cities, especially in Brazil, are using technology to focus on fostering tourism, Piva said. “The common element of smart cities is the citizen and the need to have citizens involved and feel at home,” he explained.
Over and over, city officials talk about the smart city as needing to provide “citizen engagement.”
China’s focus on smart cities
China, which has multiple cities with more than 10 million residents each, has pushed forward with a variety of smart technologies, some that might rankle Americans because of the potential privacy risks they raise.
Piva said there are nearly 300 pilot smart city projects going on in a group of municipalities in the middle of the vast nation. “If you jump on a bus, you may encounter facial recognition, which will be used to determine whether you have a bus permit,” he said.
The city of Yinchuan has reduced the size of its permitting work force from 600 employees to 50 by using a common online process accessible to citizens who need anything from a house-building permit to a driver’s license, Piva said.
A stark contrast to Yinchuan’s smart city initiative, which has a concrete monetary ROI, is in Dubai. Officials in that United Arab Emirates city are building a “happiness meter,” which will collect digital inputs from ordinary citizens on their reactions to various things. It could be used to evaluate the combined impact of the cleanliness of streets and the effectiveness of security checkpoints with an assortment of other measures. In some cities, citizen inputs regarding happiness may come from smartphones. But they also could come from digital polling stations. For example, users of airport bathrooms might click a happy face button at a kiosk if they thought the bathrooms were clean.
The theory behind happiness meters is that, if municipal officials can capture data from citizens about what it’s like to live in a city, “people will be more successful and take care of the community better,” Piva said. However, he acknowledged, “it’s a hard ROI to measure and takes lots of different touchpoints.”
Ask just about any city official or technologist working for a city, and you are likely to get many different examples of a smart city. A strict definition is even harder to nail down.
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, took a stab at a comprehensive definition but only after first jabbing at the broad ways the concept is used. “‘Smart city’ is one of those all-encompassing terms that everyone defines however they want,” he said.
But then, he added, “Really, a smart city is about having sensor data that then gets used to create actions. You can define a smart city as a city with better managed infrastructure that is variable, based on input of data and adjustments of the results to best utilize resources or improve safety.”
Piva and others might add that a city could use the data to improve the happiness of its visitors, residents and workers.
Gold added, “The ultimate goals of smart cities are power management, reducing pollution footprints, increasing public safety, or offering improved services to residents. The downside is that it takes investment infrastructure, and most cities don’t have a lot of extra dollars to invest. But it’s coming in small steps in many places.”
Vendors are lining up
In addition to big tech companies like IBM, Cisco, GE, Intel and others, there are hundreds of smaller vendors of hardware, software and apps that want to cash in on the smart city phenomenon, for example SmartCitiesSolutions.
In Kansas City, Cisco partner Sensity System, a provider of high-tech outdoor lighting, is installing LED streetlights equipped with sensors that can be dimmed automatically for precise ambient light conditions. While city officials haven’t said what they expect to spend on the expensive new LED lighting, Sensity has stated the city stands to save $4 million a year with the new approach.
Sensity has big ambitions for the world’s billions of streetlights and has created technology called Light Sensory Networks that turns an LED streetlight into a platform for data and video for blossoming Internet of Things networks. Each LED street lamp can become a sensor-equipped smart device with a unique IP address to serve as a node in a broadband network, often wirelessly. That smart device can power other smart devices, like video sensors or Wi-Fi access points, to support parking, surveillance or industrial applications, such as systems that tell city snowplows when and where to salt or plow snow.
At CTIA Super Mobility Week 2015 in Las Vegas recently, Verizon showed a smart street lamp that was built by its partner Illuminating Concepts and is similar to those installed for a smart lighting project in Lansing, Mich. The streetlights are connected wirelessly to the cloud and can provide public announcements over audio speakers or via digital signs. They can also handle air pollution analysis and other functions. Each pole costs nearly $6,000, although pricing depends on the sensors installed and the functions the pole is used for.
In addition to Verizon, AT&T and other large U.S. wireless carriers have jumped on board the smart city movement. In Kansas City, Sprint recently invested $7 million for a free Wi-Fi zone around the coming 2.2-mile streetcar route.
Social scientists ponder the downside of the ‘smart city’
While the technology industry and city officials all over the world are promoting the various benefits that smart cities are expected to bring, at least two social scientists have recently raised concerns about the ways smart city technologies can be used to manipulate people with things like facial recognition systems and automated policing tools.
In a paper titled “The Spectrum of Control: A Social Theory of the Smart City,” Jathan Sadowski and Frank Pasquale called attention to some of the negative aspects of cities filled with networks of smart sensors.
“At present, smart city boosters are far too prone to assume that a benevolentintelligence animates the networks of sensors and control mechanisms they plan to install,” they wrote.
Both researchers are concerned that smart cities may feature networks that provide “little escape from a seamless web of surveillance.” That “web of surveillance” could clearly include facial recognition systems, but Sadowski and Pasquale argue that the potential to use technology to track people’s movements goes deeper — smartphones might be tracked via GPS or beacons, for example. Depending on the person using the technology, the collection of such information could be seen as beneficial or insidious.
“It is against [the] democratic egalitarian goal — of fair benefit- and burden-sharing — that alleged ‘smartenings’ of the city must be measured,” they conclude. Sadowski is a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University, and Pasquale is a law professor at the University of Maryland.
Other social scientists have raised similar red flags about smart city technologies, and officials in some cities have addressed citizens’ concerns that sensors and other smart systems could be used in a way that invades people’s privacy.
In Kansas City, the city council recently passed a resolution committing to follow data privacy best practices. The mayor also created a panel known as the Smart City Advisory Board to offer guidance on privacy concerns.
The nebulous smart city label
While Sadowski and Pasquale have joined a number of social commentators questioning where the smart city phenomenon is headed, they also condemned the broad way the term “smart city” has been defined.
“Major corporate players work hard to push smartness as an ideal and to pull city leaders and investors into the smartness orbit,” they state in their paper. “[They] have worked hard to create this market and to shape it in certain ways. Yet, with this massive growth and capital investment, the label ‘smart city’ is nebulous…. This ambiguity does a lot of work for smart city proponents and purveyors. The label…. [gives] them discursive cover in case they need to distance themselves if something goes wrong or doesn’t deliver on a promise.”
Smart city proponents, naturally, see things differently. They say it’s a little like the early days of the PC or the way that people first envisioned social networks like Facebook. A desktop computer was originally seen as a better tool for typing reports than an electric typewriter, but the machine later became the all-important, expansive portal to the Internet. And before Facebook exploded to global prominence, few could envision how important intimate mobile connections would one day be to millions of people.
“The exciting part is that we don’t know what we don’t know” about smart city technology, said Rick Usher, assistant city manager for Kansas City. Notice, he called it “exciting.”
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