"The government closest to the people serves the people best." 
--Thomas Jefferson

It has often been asserted that the primary drivers of economic development and prosperity in society are cities. This is not surprising, nor is it a recent phenomenon. Since the days of ancient Mesopotamia, cities have been hubs for innovation and advancement, and this is equally true today. Our cities are the pinnacle of public creativity on issues ranging from providing quality education and economic opportunity to reducing traffic congestion and improving mobility to work and other activities to lowering taxes and crime rates.

For a city to be influential, its elected officials must vigorously strive to create a unique live/work/play environment. A "smart city" modernizes the digital, physical and social infrastructure, using an integrative approach to coordinate essential and complementary services. Unnecessary redundancies in infrastructure are eliminated or repurposed for more efficient use. Access to services is improved and processes are made more transparent. Devices are linked to residents, but innovative cities also ensure that devices connect to each other. Connectivity and mobility are the new drivers of success.

City governments are better positioned than their state or national counterparts to lead the shift to smarter infrastructure. As a republic, our national and state governing institutions were purposely designed to be deliberative, not swift-moving. However, in today's world of rapid technological advancement, long deliberation periods are often at odds with the pace of change and can result in increased costs or missed opportunities. Municipal governments, on the other hand, are far more agile, and thus better able to act quickly and with targeted focus on the goals and needs of the individual communities they serve. 

That said, such undertakings are not without their challenges, particularly when the scale and cost of the smart-infrastructure project under consideration is significant. As an initial matter, there is an education process that must occur. City leaders need to conduct extensive community engagement to identify the present and future needs of their residents and businesses. They also need to be conversant enough with the latest technologies to be able to sort through the many options offered by tech companies. At the same time, they should not lose sight of the fact that the goal of the smart city is to achieve a higher quality of life by solving concrete problems. It is solution-driven, not tech-driven. 

Another challenge, as with any bureaucracy, is a natural disinclination to cooperation and coordination. Responsibilities, and therefore also resources, are siloed. To take full advantage of new technologies' potential to improve efficiency, increase transparency and reduce costs in the delivery of municipal services, the silos need to be deconstructed. ("Mr. Mayor, tear down the silos!")

Once silos are broken down so that coordination is possible, cities will still face challenges funding smart infrastructure development and operations, which may not lend themselves to traditional financing and procurement models. City controllers and investors alike may need to pursue creative financing strategies. 

In short, the challenges are many but not insurmountable with some creative thinking, and the potential rewards for cities and their communities are great. 

But where does a city begin? City officials and community leaders should not approach a smart city initiative with a blank slate, at least not in the United States. Instead, smart-city planning should be undertaken with a clear understanding of existing structures, both physical and social, and how they came to be. City councilmembers, because they are close to residents and businesses, will have a deep appreciation of the many-layered tapestry that makes up the community ‒ its culture, its priorities, its problems and successes, its sources of pride and failure. It is against this background that a smart city is constructed.

Where to begin?

Although it may seem obvious, one way to start is to create a basic set of smart-city goals. This will help decision makers focus on solutions first, technology second. General goals might include:

  • Improving residents' quality of life and civic pride
  • Providing more services, delivered in a more efficient manner, and with lower or fewer taxes
  • Enhancing sustainability
  • Saving energy, water and costs, for consumers and government 
  • Conquering the digital divide
  • Providing greater cyber protection

Each of the above goals might easily be found in a city's strategic plan whether or not the city has a formal "smart" strategy. However, what a smart strategy can do is increase the benefits of achieving these goals by orders of magnitude once they are matched with specific initiatives and projects.

Step two is to obtain an inventory of existing assets and services. Among the aims of smart cities is to increase productivity and reduce the cost of services, so a baseline measurement is essential at the outset. Three promising areas cities and communities are focusing on enhancing and delivering in a more cost-effective manner are energy/utilities, transportation and public safety, all of which are seen as key to economic growth and improved quality of life. But there are many others. However, without an assessment of the current status, it will be difficult to know just what needs to be improved and where.

As part of this initial inventory, the status of "backbone systems" should be assessed. The electrical and advanced telecommunications grids are both critical to deploying most of the smart technologies that a city might want to incorporate in its smart-city strategic plan. They must be reliable and multi-directional to allow for the integration of advanced technologies, and future-proofed to allow for incorporation of the next generation of technologies. 

Becoming smarter 

A smart city is in continuous evolution. City leaders do not simply invest in technology, see that it is correctly deployed, and then pat themselves on the back for having made their city smart from the ground up. It is an ongoing process that includes incorporating advanced technology systems with real-time data analytics and adopting new innovations as they emerge. The menu of options available to cities for improving and better integrating their systems is rich, and the paths they choose will vary. Not every individual choice will be perceived as "transformative," but a successful package of options should allow a city to optimize services and operate with more efficiency across sectors and programs. Some initial measures a city might pursue could include:

  • Transportation infrastructure
    • Intelligent transportation systems (ITSs), including sensors to reduce traffic congestion and improve signal control, real-time quickest-route bus traffic controls, congestion pricing and predictive maintenance
    • Smart parking systems to reduce congestion and provide mobile payment solutions
    • Improved mobility by linking transit (first- and last-mile transit) and ridesharing
    • Charging station buildout for electric vehicles (EVs)
    • Intelligent commercial vehicle systems
  • Smart buildings
    • Blockchains for added security for Internet of things (IoT), grids and telecommunication systems
    • Sensors and LEDs for energy-efficient lighting and power
    • Sensors to report maintenance issues and malfunctions
    • Zero-energy buildings, blue roofs (to store water) and green roofs
  • Smart water
    • Sensors to report water, storm water and sewage maintenance issues, (e.g., leakage detection, and management of consumption and non-revenue water)
    • 5G systems to reduce costs, operate more efficiently and enhance security
  • Public health, social services and accessibility
    • Enhanced mobility for people with physical and cognitive disabilities
    • Sensors for faster emergency response (e.g., gunshot detection, crime locations and crime stats, disaster early warning systems, and altered light intensity)
    • Air-quality sensors
    • Public-private partnerships (e.g., free Wi-Fi financed through advertising revenue)
    • Bike-sharing, ride-sharing and car-sharing programs
    • 5G technology to expand surveillance networks, video transmissions and autonomous vehicle success
  • Smart energy
    • Efficiency measures
    • Smart streetlights (LED, multi-use structures)
    • Convert closed coal sites to solar or other uses
    • Convert waste sludge to energy
    • Customer-use management technology and distributed energy resources

None of the above concepts are revolutionary, and many are already at various stages of implementation in some cities, especially in pilot projects. Nor is the above list exhaustive; there are many other initiatives that could be included within a smart-city strategy. And the menu of options will change as new technologies, with applications that cannot even be imagined yet, emerge. 

Essential roles for local leaders

The involvement of local government leaders is critical to the success of a smart-city strategy. There is a perception that smart cities are driven by large tech companies with little engagement by citizens. This notion is reinforced by the widespread use of electronic sensors/devices to collect data that is then used to manage assets and resources within an area, but which has also given rise to privacy concerns and an "us vs. them" mentality. While the aim of a smart city is to enhance the quality of urban living, a city will only be a vibrant, sustainable, inclusive and exciting place to live and work if it is created through engagement with its citizenry.

Before a city can take advantage of advanced technologies, municipal leaders need to engage in extensive community outreach. Even where a plan clearly will enable more services to be delivered for the same tax dollars, cost is not the only consideration. Leaders will need to educate not just themselves but city residents on the capital outlays and financial returns, efficiency gains and temporary disruptions, technological benefits and data security concerns, and so forth. There should be and open and frank dialogue, showcasing successes but also acknowledging failures (and the lessons learned).

Municipal leaders also need to ensure that the entire process—from development of the vision to selection of technologies, consultants and engineers— is transparent and inclusive. Even if state laws permit the city to contract for professional services without a public bidding process, the process should be transparent so as to gain necessary public support.

An additional area where municipal leaders will need to engage the public—and one that is too frequently neglected—is the impact of automation on jobs. While job creation of all sorts of new jobs is one of the economic benefits of smart cities initiatives, automation necessarily means eliminating the human component in some areas. Civic leaders will need to ensure that as advanced technologies are integrated, training opportunities are offered in the new sectors to prepare residents and businesses to use the smart systems and take full advantage of services offered, particularly in low-income areas to reduce the digital divide. In addition retraining should be offered to workers whose jobs are likely to be lost.

In terms of financing, adaptive technologies utilizing public-private collaborations offer cities and communities outstanding opportunities to transform their residents' lives by improving public services and converting existing municipal assets to new revenue sources.

Water systems, power utilities and other enterprise funds have a dedicated funding source, which can be used as a multiplier effect to take advantage of emerging technologies. Additionally, reduced costs that result from integration of smart technologies, as well as savings that result from streamlining and coordinating processes among departments within municipal government structures mean that more resources will be available for other purposes.

For example, industry incentives such as streamlined permitting for small cell networks employing 5G wireless technology, prior approval of right of way and telecommunications fee adjustments reduce public cost. Similarly, sensors that identify water leaks and power outages lessen cost and reduce downtime. Adaptive traffic controls reduce traffic congestion and collisions, increase mobility, assist in locating parking and potentially improve air quality—all resulting in savings to the city and to its residents. Integrated sensors on smart streetlights turn ubiquitous lighting into IoT digital infrastructure. The lighting is more energy efficient, and the associated power can be used to add numerous public and private applications, partially funding the infrastructure while providing an open yet highly secure cloud connection.

Beyond identifying opportunities and assisting in the formation of strategy, local government will also need to take the lead in a wide range of activities to maximize the benefits of a smart cities initiative. There may be regulatory structures that need to be changed, from local zoning ordinances and permitting rules to state laws. Leaders also will need to keep abreast of available incentives, such as challenge grant opportunities to tax structures and data privacy rules. There also may be a need for managed competition of municipal services. Local leaders should also examine the possibility of agreements between public entities that enhance services through shared costs and greater efficiencies, such as cloud-centric integrated investments, shared access, shared data and 5G technology, and privatization of municipal services. And, of course, municipal leaders, as elected officials, will need to continue to engage residents throughout the process. One reason is accountability. But another, perhaps more important reason, is that smart city governments will want to remain at the front of the smart city's evolutionary trajectory to be sure that its changing needs and those of its residents are met in the smartest, most efficient and most cost-effective manner. 

Dentons is the world's first polycentric global law firm. A top 20 firm on the Acritas 2015 Global Elite Brand Index, the Firm is committed to challenging the status quo in delivering consistent and uncompromising quality and value in new and inventive ways. Driven to provide clients a competitive edge, and connected to the communities where its clients want to do business, Dentons knows that understanding local cultures is crucial to successfully completing a deal, resolving a dispute or solving a business challenge. Now the world's largest law firm, Dentons' global team builds agile, tailored solutions to meet the local, national and global needs of private and public clients of any size in more than 125 locations serving 50-plus countries. www.dentons.com.

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