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November 18, 2015

The big tech firms are wrong. We must build smart cities from the ground up

By Kurtis McBride

Kurtis McBride is the CEO and co-founder of Miovision, a company which provides transport data management systems.  He thinks that the big tech firms are doing smart cities all wrong.

Over the last several years, we’ve seen some of the world’s biggest technology companies, including the likes of Cisco and IBM, jump on board the “smart cities” bandwagon. There have been calls for major overhauls to municipal IT systems in order to connect everything from parking meters to fire trucks to public transportation. These were grand visions aimed at transforming our cities into technological utopias.

In most places, however, putting those visions into practice simply is not practical. The reality is when we talk about implementing “smart city” technology, we need to think about starting small and building from the ground up. Look at the example of the Internet of Things in an individual home. Almost no one has built a George Jetson house where everything is connected and automated – but many, many people have homes with smart TVs, automated thermostats and, coming soon, refrigerators that alert them when they’re out of milk.

There are several reasons why the big tech firms’ utopian smart city visions are impractical. First of all, those types of top-down implementations are extremely expensive. As economies have slowed, government budgets have shrunk. Cities are focused on maintaining basic services like trash collection and law enforcement, not installing supercomputers and new networks.

Second, most cities already have some degree of IT infrastructure in place. They may have mainframes dating back decades that still support basic functions.

A public works department may have sensors monitoring storm drains for clogs. The parks department may have an automated system for reserving playground shelters for special events. The police department may already have GPS tracking installed on squad cars. These types of legacy systems – the things folks at Cisco and IBM would like to replace with a comprehensive citywide IT infrastructure – are still extremely valuable. As great as it would be to institute a top-to-bottom overhaul, it’s just not practical.

Anthony Townsend, a research director at the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future and author of 2013’s “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest of a New Utopia,” talks about how smart cities will develop using the analogy of a mainframe vs. the web. He writes:

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“These model smart cities are like mainframes where everything’s going to a central place. There’s one suite of software that dictates how everything works and can be very carefully engineered. But our ‘smart’ cities are going to look much more like the web, where there’s going to be a lot of things deployed by individual decision, talking to each other through open standards in very ad hoc, loosely knit ways.”

That’s just good urban planning. When cities plan growth, they start with an open grid, and people customize the different pieces that they’re in charge of. The result is a complex and vibrant system instead of a controlled, hierarchical one, says Townsend.

Instead of building the smart city of our dreams, let’s start with a smarter city that uses digital technology to enhance the quality of service delivered to residents, reduce costs and resource consumption and better engage with residents.

We’ve already seen good examples of this. Cities have built apps with live public transit information to make it easier to use bus and train systems. They have apps to monitor and control utilities in real time. There are apps that people can use to send real-time feedback about city performance.

Cities will need more of these. Our cities are growing faster than ever, which puts more stress on existing infrastructure. Budgets can’t keep pace with maintenance and replacement demands, yet infrastructure is mandatory to support healthy, vibrant communities.

Cities also need to think about how to capitalise on existing infrastructure and capacity. Transportation management systems are a great example. Many cities have torn up streets and sidewalks to lay fiber to create new networks: that’s expensive and disruptive.

A better alternative would be to install hardware into traffic cabinets that connects the signals to the cloud so they can be managed and monitored remotely in real time. Then, that network can later be a backbone for additional applications.

That’s a perfect example of starting small and building up that makes the development of a smarter city possible. Start with physical infrastructure. Connect it to a network. And provide the open data so innovative minds can develop the applications that improve life for residents.

Or you could rip out everything that’s already there and start from scratch with a multibillion-dollar smart city project.

Which of those options sounds smart to you?

Kurtis McBride is the CEO and co-founder of the transport data management firm Miovision.

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