New Year, New Technology, New (Smarter) Cities

Fully connected smart cities are coming. NLC’s latest report helps cities prepare for their arrival by providing local leaders with best practices in this arena.

As cities grapple with how to invest in smart city technologies, and how to ensure that their cities remain on the cutting edge of this technological revolution, there are several things they should consider. (Getty Images)

Technology is changing us – and our cities – in an unprecedented way. This is not news to most, and the influence of technological developments and advances certainly isn’t a new development. We’ve all likely reflected on the impact of the smartphone once or twice. However, over the last year, discussions about just how quickly technology has asserted control over our lives, our economies, and the places we call home have become more dominant, and sometimes, more anxiety inducing. If 2016 was the year we realized that autonomous vehicles are here and happening, 2017 might be the year we realize that this is about so much more than cars.

Indeed, technology is becoming the critical force that defines the way our cities are run, managed, and evolving. This has culminated in a movement often referred to as the ‘Smart Cities’ revolution. While cities are ever-changing with technology driving their evolution, today we are seeing it impact everything from the buildings we use, to the way we get around, to how we live, work, and play in the urban space.

Now, as we are on the cusp of increasingly rapid shifts in cities precipitated by technology, it is worth imagining what the fully connected smart city of the future will look like – and the associated impact it will have on our everyday lives. To that end, the National League of Cities (NLC) is pleased to release “Trends in Smart City Development,” which presents case studies and discusses how smart cities are growing nationwide and globally. Created with our partners at the American University Department of Public Administration and Policy, this guidebook is meant to be a resource for cities as they lead the way forward in this exciting and ever-evolving space.

Cities are beginning to, and will continue to integrate technological dynamism into municipal operations, from transportation to infrastructure repair and more. As the integration of smart cities technologies becomes more visible in our everyday lives, we could begin to see large scale changes in our cities.

Let’s imagine a future where autonomous vehicles on our roadways and the data that they provide change traffic patterns and mobility networks as we know them. Similarly, as we move toward greater usage of shared vehicles and trips, we might be able to move away from parking either below buildings or on streets, enabling cities to recapture that land for new uses and development. Energy sources could be completely renewable in the smart city of the future as well, with technology paving the way for better integration into our cities and thereby helping to create a cleaner environment for everyone. Smart energy systems will allow cities to collect information from sources such as smart water, electric, and gas meters.

At the same time, our future cities will be safer with streetlight networks that use embedded sensors to detect gunshots or flash their lights during emergencies. These are just some of the possibilities that loom on the horizon for cities, and more, improved applications are being developed daily.

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As cities grapple with how to invest in smart cities technology, and how to ensure that their cities remain on the cutting edge of this technological revolution, there are several things they should consider:

  • Rather than looking for solutions first, cities should consider the outcomes they want to achieve. They should find out what their residents and local businesses want to see happen, and turn those desires into clearly defined objectives before proceeding with smart initiatives. A city’s existing comprehensive, transportation, and sustainability planning documents can help guide the establishment of goals.
  • Partnerships may be the key to successfully deploying new smart cities systems. In an era when the first question is “how?” and the second question “how much?” cities need to get creative about how to deploy expensive, large scale projects like these. Partnerships provide many benefits to cities. They give cities access to funding and expertise that might not otherwise be available. Many public problems are complex and can be too diverse for any single organization to tackle. That makes collaboration advantageous, as cities and organizations are often able to do more together than they could alone.
  • Keep up with new developments and standards. The diversity in technology and the lack of agreed upon principles for redesigning the built environment presents a challenge for interested cities. The newness of smart development means that not much has been codified. Though this report provides a window into what some cities are doing now, smart development is a rapidly changing field. Cities interested in becoming smart should continue to look for best practices and frameworks for this type of development.

All of this is predicated on the premise that technologies can help make people’s lives better in cities. At the end of the day, technological developments will enhance our urban experience – but they also risk leaving more people behind. To this end, we must be deliberate in the development of smart cities and imbue equity as a primary goal so that the city of the future is a city for everyone.

Fully connected smart cities are coming, and NLC wants to help cities prepare for their arrival by providing local leaders with best practices in this arena. It is our hope that this report will spark conversation and action among local policymakers about how to incorporate these strategies into their own communities.

Read the full Smart City Development report.

Read the full Trends in Smart City Development report.

About the author: Nicole DuPuis is the Principal Associate for Urban Innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.