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?
That 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.