Downtown San Antonio.
Many cities are turning to smart technology to make communities safer.
Embracing technology can be cumbersome for some governments.
Here are four ways city leaders can implement smart infrastructure smoothly.
This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”
Cities face a number of challenges that affect residents’ quality of life including traffic congestion, poor air quality, safety issues, and limited internet access. To solve these pressing problems, many city leaders are embracing technology that makes cities safer and improves residents’ quality of life, like pollution sensors, smart streetlights, gunshot detectors, and traffic-control monitoring.
Atlanta, for example, debuted the North Avenue Smart Corridor in 2017 to study multimodal traffic management at a busy intersection. The project uses sensors and cameras on a two-mile stretch of roadway to track the number of vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists on the road. It’s improved traffic flow and led to a 25% drop in vehicle crashes since its inception.
“There’s a growing demand for efficient and accessible services from our residents, and we’ve only seen that demand grow after Covid,” Emily Royall, smart city administrator for the San Antonio Office of Innovation, told Insider. “To accommodate that, city governments need to work on upskilling their staff and transforming their services and infrastructure.”
Here are four ways city leaders can implement smart infrastructure in a way that meets the needs and improves life for all residents.
Start small and scale-up
Smart infrastructure produces a trove of data, which is the “backbone” to identifying and solving problems, said Brittaney Carter, chief technology officer for the city of Atlanta. “It also enables the ability to leverage predictive analytics to test proposed solutions.”
But, starting small, such as deploying smart streetlights on a couple of blocks before expanding citywide, allows cities to experiment and test solutions to see what works best, Karen Lightman, executive director of the Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said. Otherwise, city leaders may risk wasting money on technology that isn’t the right fit. Cities also need to gather a small amount of data before they can know how to best use smart technology, Lightman added.
Brittaney Carter is the chief technology officer for the city of Atlanta.
In Pittsburgh, Lightman’s team is working on a Smart Loading Zones project to help delivery drivers find places to park in the city that uses cameras to capture the license plates of vehicles illegally parked in loading zones. It launched in April with 15 parking spaces. Lightman said they’ll analyze metrics like double parking and idle time in the spaces and talk to local small businesses near loading zones about how they’re affected when vehicles double park nearby. Then, the project will expand to 200 parking areas.
Starting small can identify some “quick wins that could be leveraged for future opportunities,” Carter said.
Train city staff to be stewards of data
Since smart city technology and services are powered by data, having a strong data governance structure is essential, Royall said.
“Smart city technology is about collecting data in new ways and using it to make decisions,” she said. “You can’t do that unless all of your city departments are treating data in the same way, and you’ve standardized how data is managed across the organizations so that you can maximize its benefit.”
However, most cities aren’t prepared to process, analyze, and manage the data collected from smart city technology, research shows. Cities need policies for collecting and managing data, including provisions for how residents’ privacy is protected and how cities can own their data when they contract with private-sector organizations, Royall said.
Upskilling city employees and leadership will ensure everyone understands smart technology, data management, and data privacy and security, Royall added. San Antonio established the Innovation Academy, a training program for city departments about data science and management, and ways of making their own jobs more innovative.
Another option is going through the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities Certification program, which assesses cities on data-driven decision-making and offers technical assistance on data governance.
Engage the public to ensure smart projects are equitable
Smart technology can shorten commutes, improve health, and decrease carbon emissions — improving the quality of life for city residents by as much as 30%, according to a McKinsey & Co. report. So it’s crucial for cities to talk to residents through surveys, meetings, or community events to find out what their needs are.
Karen Lightman is the executive director of the Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
Many cities host town hall-style meetings to introduce new initiatives, but Lightman said a better approach is to create “touchpoints to get community feedback” and reach residents where they are. Popup events outside schools, libraries, or shops could engage larger groups of residents.
San Antonio established SmartSA Sandbox, a series of family-friendly, festival-style events where the public can ask questions and test out smart technology, like smart streetlights and autonomous vehicles. The events, held in public parks, often draw hundreds of people and have led to greater public support for the projects.
“Transparency and communication with residents mean not just treating them as consumers of technology, but as active co-creators and collaborative partners,” Royall said.
Partner with companies, nonprofits, and educational institutions
Teaming up with the private sector or local nonprofits and colleges and universities can help cities implement smart city strategies. These organizations can offer research, resources, and funding, which are elements that cities sometimes lack.
“Universities, the private sector, and local government all share the same customer base, which is residents and citizens, and we work to serve them in different ways,” Royall said. “To maximize everyone’s impact, it makes sense to build partnerships to extend your reach.”
Reach out to other cities who’ve implemented successful smart infrastructure projects, too, Carter advised: “You don’t need to recreate the wheel. There are cities that have already started down this path and made great accomplishments with a wealth of knowledge to share.”