This October, hundreds of city organizers, local government officials, and technology experts convened just south of Washington, D.C. The fall 2019 Smart Cities Connect conference came with plenty of insights, questions, and takeaways as they relate to the concept of smart cities and connected urban areas.

Condensing four full days of workshops, keynotes, and presentation into one article can be difficult. Still, common themes emerged that are important to know for any company looking to either become a part of a digital infrastructure philosophy that is increasingly becoming commonplace. 

Before we get into our takeaways, a definition. Smart cities have been defined in many ways, by many people. They’re not single initiatives, and never centralized. Loosely, a smart city is one that leverages the internet of things, sensors, and software to connect its everyday processes within the city and to better serve the community.

We’re not limiting ourselves to large urban centers. The same concepts discussed here can apply to college campuses and smaller towns as well. The key is this emphasis on a collection of projects and initiatives that, together, support residents and economic development alike. 

Think of the concept as idealistic, a utopian view of a city in which everything communicates with each other. Traffic lights react to weather reports, parking spots and cars are in constant communication, and public transportation data feeds into every workplace. Then, imagine a community working together towards that goal. That’s the core idea of Smart Cities Connect. So without further ado, these are our takeaways from the conference.

1) Columbus is a Central Case Study

When it comes to smart cities in the United States, it all starts and ends with Columbus. At least it seemed that way at the conference, where the city kept popping up in vendor presentations and city official case studies. There’s a reason for that, of course; after all, the city earned a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation as its first-ever Smart City Challenge winner.

Columbus is a microcosm of how to handle smart city initiatives at the local level. The initiative is driven by SmartColumbus, a third-party nonprofit that can give the project the momentum and attention it deserves. A number of public-private partnerships have spent significantly more time and effort on this project than a designee in the mayor’s office ever could.

Some of the first outcomes from this smart city project is a pilot system for Connected Electric Autonomous Vehicle, which launched this January. Common payment systems throughout the city, enhanced Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities, and smart event parking management are some of the other early outcomes of the U.S. DoT money.

Best of all, SmartColumbus is not shy in sharing its efforts. The nonprofit has partnered with Ohio State University on some of its learnings, leveraging the significant brain power of this national university for both the development of the initiative itself and its implementation. It’s just one example of the many partnership that have to proceed any significant smart city movement. Even better, Columbus has taken an open data approach, sharing a GitHub repository that other cities can use to learn and draw their own conclusions.

2) There is no Central Approach to Smart Cities

At first glance, interested attendees might have come away from Smart Cities Connect thinking that Columbus is the blueprint. That’s true in some cases, but at least as significant was the fact that different cities are approaching their quest to become smart in very different ways.

Most American cities are just starting their initiatives. Less than 20% of them are even considering going smart, and among them, there is no consensus on what’s the most relevant direction or best practice to follow. That might play a role in the fact that, as one presenter highlighted, an estimate of only 1% to 2% of American cities can actually show off a meaningful effort in this regard.

Looking at the approach of different cities helps us to understand the potential problems this lack of consensus can bring:

  • Cary, North Carolina is making good progress by using a platform that connects ESRI, Salesforce, and SAP to manage a variety of apps for transportation, water, and waste.
  • Baltimore, MD is using a community-focused approach in which residents can drive the conversation, but has very few active initiatives to show for as a result.
  • Columbus, OH has made great inroads through its public-private partnerships, but these partnerships can also slow down some of the consensus-requiring initiatives.

All in all, though, the movement is positive. Throughout the conference, we saw presentations on how smart city technology could be used to improve parking, public WiFi, and traffic control. Community-focused initiatives, like the electrification of vehicles, video monitoring, and even gunshot detection systems all lead to an optimistic prognosis for the near future.

3) Transportation as a Core Focus

One thing that seemed clear throughout the conference was the fact that, within the larger concept of smart cities, transportation is taking a front row seat. That might not be a surprise, considering the fact that cities across the United States are becoming increasingly congested. At the same time, it only increases the priority level for newer, innovative solutions.

If the presentations are to be believed, these potential solutions are starting to come to fruition. We’ve already mentioned the possibilities of electric vehicles and a better parking and traffic light system. It doesn’t end there. Another example is AI-driven parking, allowing for smaller spots to be taken up and more space as a result. 

For instance, micro mobility concepts may be used to fill the holes in public transit that still exist today. That includes e-scooter and e-bike solutions, designed to increase speed of transportation without further congesting the already busy roads. And once again, Columbus has been at the forefront of that initiative with multiple companies investing in that direction.

Of course, micro mobility is not without its challenges. We don’t yet know the impact that large-scale micro mobility has on persons with disabilities, especially when it comes from further congested sidewalks. These same solutions may also not work well when the weather turns. We’re considering the future, but haven’t quite arrived yet.

4) The Importance of Interconnected Systems

We already highlighted the fact above that a true smart city can never depend on a single platform or system. It encompasses too many technologies, different types of devices, and functions that aren’t always directly compatible. So naturally, a central part of the discussion was how these systems could be brought together effectively.

Data connections and interconnectivity become absolute key to success in this area. Fortunately, cities across the country are already finding out exactly what that might look like. New York City, for instance, used a third-party non-profit to vet hundreds of tech providers in order to help with two basic business challenges directly connected to smart cities. Rather than focus on a singular platform, the goal was to build a network of platforms that could work together.

We’ve yet to find out exactly what a resolution might look like. But we did hear one example at Smart Cities Connect that explored the possibilities. Allow us to recount it here:

  1. A traffic light goes out of service.
  2. The traffic light automatically reports the issue to maintenance.
  3. Maintenance deploys police for traffic management.
  4. A central GPS system reroutes connected mobility apps to reduce potential congestion.
  5. The same GPS system routes emergency vehicles through alternative pathways to avoid potential dangers.
  6. If the traffic light is out at night, the system turns up smart lighting to reduce dangers of the traffic light being out.

It’s impossible to envision this scenario without a multitude of systems. Data has to be shared, become platform agnostic, and translate seamlessly for multiple uses. But when that happens, cities can become safer, more efficient, and better to live in.

5) New Technology Brings New Possibilities

We don’t have to tell our readers that technology is moving at our rapid pace. All of our articles in this space, along with our core business model, make that crystal clear. It’s an obvious takeaway, then, that smart cities too will be driven by new and better technology that could surpass everything about the way they operate today.

Take 5G as an example. Just being rolled out in major United States cities today, the increased connection speed and reliability will play a core role in the smart cities of the future. It will enable more ubiquitous IoT apps across cities, increasing the possibilities of connectivity. Light poles will likely become part of the deployment itself, greatly increasing their role in the city of the future.

Similar technology is also increasingly enabling vendors and city officials to connect the interior and outside of buildings and entire cities or campuses. Indoor location services, in fact, could be a major factor in enhancing routing and rerouting services for pedestrians when it comes to throughways and alternative routes.

Ultimately, Smart Cities Connect saw lots of vendors calling on city leaders for change based on their new technology possibilities. That alone should be a tell: moving forward, they will be the ones who push the new technology and, as a result, expand the realm of possibilities across the United States and the globe.

6) Ownership Remains an Open Question

Finally, it’s important to highlight the fact that not everything is perfect when it comes to smart cities. Some significant challenges still remain, and if conference presenters are to be believed, the question of ownership is central among them. 

Who owns the assets? Does responsibility lie with city officials, third-party nonprofits (like in Columbus), or private ventures looking to profit from this trend and technological movement? What communication network should be preferred for transmitting data, and what does that have to do with competitiveness between the country’s largest communication companies? How should communication be conducted in general?

It’s easy to talk about smart grid, smart electric meters, and smart light poles. More difficult is finding out exactly where ownership for these assets and communication channels lie. The answer could drive anything from budget to priority levels and might even have electoral consequences moving forward.

Resolving questions about ownership for the future might also lead to resolving current questions about accessibility. Managed the wrong way, smart city initiatives might actually drive the digital divide, both on a macro level (with some cities outpacing others) and a micro level (with residents who have limited access not being able to have the same quality of life). These questions absolutely need to be resolved as connected urban initiatives move from future planning into the realm of current possibilities.

What Does the Future in Smart Cities Hold?

All of the above have one thing in common: they’re looking towards the future, which is very much unwritten. We’re just scratching the surface of possibilities when it comes to smart cities, and a conference like this makes that obvious. Positioning your city, technology, or business for that future will be a core part in building a competitive advantage within this space going forward.

That can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. It might be the company that bridges those fears of an increasing digital divide. It could be the technology that feeds live data easily into multiple, otherwise disconnected systems. Or it could simply be the city (or university) that takes charge in making the smart conversion a priority at every organizational level.

Wherever the future goes, it will be fascinating to monitor. Fully autonomous vehicles connected directly into the city grid, zero-emission urban centers, and the ability to prevent airborne diseases are just some of the more realistic developments that, just a few years ago, seemed like science fiction.

Is your company prepared for that future? How does (and can) your data connect with the world around it and the citizens who could benefit from it? Something as simple as an online map, like above with Stapleton, can turn into one of the systems mentioned above through live data integration. And that’s just the beginning.