Why Our Cities Aren’t So Smart

You can acquire streetlights equipped with sensors that connect wirelessly to the cloud. They can monitor traffic, pollution, the weather, energy usage and more. They can have audio speakers with automated messages or digital signs. And give or take a few sensors these smart lightposts cost about $6,000 each. There are 250,000 street lights in New York City. How many do you think the city has the money to replace at $6,000 a pop. This is a place where they recently balanced the budget by cutting the funding for some 31,000 kids to go to summer camp. Who has the money to fit smart poles into this year’s budget?

streetlightThat in a nutshell explains why the vision of a smart city is still just that, a vision. Almost all of the operating budget for most cities is being spent on the day-to-day operation of the city, meeting the payroll, keeping the schools running, paying and equipping the police and the firemen, filling the biggest of the potholes, collecting the trash.

In the U.K., research by street lighting equipment manufacturer Lucy Zodion concluded there are five barriers to delivering smart city solutions (like the ones they provide). They are:

  • A lack of funding
  • A lack of internal prioritization
  • A lack of evidence or proof
  • Not enough collaboration
  • A general lack of confidence

The development of the smart city is largely in the hands of local, not state, provincial or federal government. So it is subject to various levels of less than optimum functioning, like different departments operating in silos, lack of centralized information systems and often obsolete equipment. I found one fairly large American city where the payroll is running on a 30-year old mainframe.

Most cities don’t have the level of management and technical expertise that is needed and that you find in private sector technology companies. They can’t do it themselves and the consultants and the technology firms that are pitching the smart city aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re not cheap.

The issue of prioritization also raises some pretty significant questions. The development of the smart city depends on what technology can do. And while we know there are some pretty substantial things that can be addressed and improved it doesn’t address the quality of education in the schools, poverty, drugs and crime and substandard housing. How do you prioritize things like identifying the best traffic route, finding available parking spots, or conserving energy when faced with these issues. The best case scenario might be to use technology to improve efficiency and lower costs so more funds are available to address these larger issues. Unfortunately at this point there is not a substantial enough body of evidence to show a return on investment at scale to justify some of the costs.

So while the promise of smart cities has been around 10-15 years and it offers a brighter vision of the urban future, it still is only proceeding in dribs and drabs. There is some federal government money available in the form of grants, some foundations are underwriting some projects and some corporate philanthropy can get some projects going. There is also what has been called the civic tech movement in which the citizenry actively engages through ideas and even entrepreneurship. But the larger vision isn’t likely to happen without larger funding.

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16 Responses to Why Our Cities Aren’t So Smart

  1. JoHanna Massey says:

    So interesting. I always wonder though, if we can reach a point where there is so much data that we chase our tails figuring out what is relevant and will improve our decision making and the quality of life on the planet and how much of the data will become gray noise. Or who will have access to all of this data.
    This is such a smart and interesting essay. Thank you so much. 🍁

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I agree, funding is the main concern for converting cities into smart cities. There are many companies that sponsor different parks and other areas of cities. The cities could consider connected with tech companies in their local area to sponsor different areas in the cities to help make smart cities more a reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lenie5860 says:

    I really like those smart streetlights and I wonder if they wouldn’t cut down on crime (This is going on the principles that those inclined to do wrong prefer to do so in the dark). If it did then the poles would pay for themselves in no time. Of course, I’m sure it’s not as cut and dried as all that but it’s just a thought. And what a pity that those 31,000 kids can no longer go to summer camp. That can’t be good for the community. You would think they could have found another way to cut costs.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. heraldmarty says:

    The budget issue is not a surprise and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens after this year’s election. On the subject of lights, I remember a couple of years ago the County of Maui made a big deal about installing new street lights – they weren’t “smart” on the level of those you described above, but they were supposed to conserve energy and be safer because they would be easier on the eyes of the drivers.

    Well, they were this obnoxious yellow and at night you could see them for miles. I don’t know how much energy they saved, but I do know that they resulted in a significant change in traffic pattern because the light was so annoying that drivers (myself included) would go out of their way to avoid areas where they were installed. I really felt sorry for the people who lived in those areas.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It has everything to do with costs. Cities today can barely keep running, so investing seems like a dream. Unfortunately, they do not realize with interest rates so low, it is the perfect time to reinvest into new technologies.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Good ideas do tend to cost and arm and a leg, so as you point out, it’s bound to be a while before more cities become smart. It’s still inspiring though to get a sense of all that is possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Tatia says:

    No surprise that funding is the main hurdle for implementing innovative solutions, but the demand for smart cities is encouraging. I worked on a market research project about the commercial lighting industry and many designers I spoke to commented on corporates spaces integrating LED and wireless systems which in the long haul are meant to effectively reduce energy consumption and costs. Thanks for sharing Ken.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Erica says:

    Back during the time of The Jetsons, or Back to the Future, I think people assumde that once we had certain technology we would see it everywhere. But it makes sense that the cost can be prohibitive for cities. Just because technology exists doesn’t mean we can afford to use it. Even for the average person, all this technology has taxed our budgets. How much easier was it to survive on a middle class budget when you didn’t have to purchase internet, a cell phone plan, a new computer, an iphone, a tablet and everything else we deem essential in 2016?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. susht says:

    I agree with budgets & funding being the hurdle in the development of the smart cities back here we hardly keep up with the expenses and need development. There is a long way to go ahead!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A nonprofit in New York City recently rolled out a project called LinkNYC. Payphones are being replaced with high-tech kiosks that offer internet access and smartphone charging. Unfortunately, they’ve became hangouts for the homeless, drug addicts and other miscreants. The group is working with city officials on fixing the problem — a shame that such a good idea is running into problems.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ken Dowell says:

      Thanks for bringing this up Jeannette. This is a great example of the dilemma many cities face. If you are going to use technology to develop services for and cummunications with your citizenry, what happens to the folks who aren’t online? In New York, the average cost of broadband is $55 a month and 25% of households don’t have it. The phone booth conversion idea is brilliant. But it also highlights the fact that technology has no solution for larger problems like homelessness and drugs. So where do you put your money?

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Andy says:

    Not enough cash? Legalize and tax marijuana, prostitution, and any other currently illegal vices. Problem solved.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I hope our grandchildren and great grandchildren will get to see that ‘vision’ turn to reality in the future, because a smart city sounds like something that everyone should get involved in and invest in. If not for our own sake then for our grandkids and great grandkids’ sake.

    Liked by 1 person

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