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Cities Big And Small Race To Be Smart

"Smart city" might be a real estate industry buzzword, but it is a concept that has grown well beyond the promises of early adopters.

Downtown Dallas

The drive to install smart technology in an urban setting is going to accelerate in the coming years. Smart city tech worldwide spending was $80B in 2016, and is forecast to grow to $135B by 2021, according to a report by International Data Corp.

A smart city is one that uses IT — especially the Internet of Things — to enhance the quality of urban services: transit, energy use, waste management, public safety and more.

On cusp of the 2020s, "smart" has a very real meaning as IoT more fully connects urban dwellers to their cities and to each other, and "city" means more than just the tech hubs of the U.S. or the world. 

U.S. cities of all sizes are rapidly adopting smart technologies, including some far from tech-besotted cities like San Francisco, Boston or Austin, though they are adopting smart city tech as well.

The city of Dallas is working with tech companies to install smart lighting, smart parking, advanced traffic management and sensors that measure air quality.

Kansas City, Missouri, has collected data on foot traffic to provide free WiFi in a 54-square-block area, and is installing interactive kiosks and smart streetlights.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, has kicked offthe its open data access program, which involves a collaborative project between the city government and other entities to empower citizens with various ways to use data.

Atlanta is deploying environmental sensors, video analytics, traffic management tools, smart lighting and smart waste management, among other tools.

Dallas Innovation Alliance Executive Director Jennifer Sanders

"Smart city technology provides the tools needed to address challenges facing cities in a data-driven manner," Dallas Innovation Alliance Executive Director Jennifer Sanders said.

"The city of Dallas has taken steps toward successful initiatives, including its Smart Cities Roadmap strategic plan, big data and analytics, as well as exploring innovative projects around transportation, process improvement and smart light poles, among others."  

Bringing tech to the problem of parking is of particular interest to cities that aspire to be smart. About 30% of all traffic congestion in urban areas is the result of drivers looking for a parking space, according to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

“Having to search for available parking can be frustrating and stressful,” said Theresa Hughes, president and CEO of Chauntry Ltd., which specializes in parking pre-booking. “Pre-booking takes the uncertainty out of parking and will be an essential element of smart transportation systems.”

Columbus, Ohio, is planning to use data from traffic light sensors to determine which of its streets are more congested than others, and which intersections suffer the most accidents.

In Jacksonville, Florida, streetlight sensors and parking sensors can notify drivers when parking spots are available, or tell owners of parked cars when their meter time is running out. That is a small part of the city's efforts to manage traffic through IT.

Montgomery, Alabama, has kicked off a Smart City Living Lab in its downtown that will feature fiber optic infrastructure, an open data portal, free public WiFi, the conversion of street lights to LED and deployment of smart parking systems.  

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said public-private partnerships are essential in leveraging technology to transform a city like Montgomery.

"The city formalized an agreement with Alabama Power, Montgomery County and the business community to create a Smart City Living Lab in the city," Strange said. "As part of this process, we will expand public works and sanitation pilot programs that reduce costs, increase efficiency and offer better service. We will also see the results of the recent relaunch of advanced recycling in Montgomery."

In the public safety sector, Montgomery is building out an extensive camera monitoring network.

"This tool depends on businesses and residents allowing officers real-time streaming access to private camera systems," Strange said.


Implementing smart city tech does pose some challenges. One is simply the time it takes to do correctly.

"There's a level of complexity to many smart projects that can require time, but short- and long-term benefits are still both possible," Sanders said.

According to Samir Saini, formerly Atlanta’s chief information officer who now works for the city of New York, one challenge in smart tech is knowing which ones available now will be useful later.

"As with any technology there are many promises of value, but those claims must be validated, and not all solutions deliver equal value in every location," Saini told ZDNet.