Quick Wins: 8 Smart City Projects That Can Pay Back Quickly

By Jesse Berst

Jesse Berst is the Chairman of the Smart Cities Council, an industry coalition that supports cities with free smart city tools, resources and case studies. Adapted with permission from the Council's Smart Cities Readiness Guide

Feb 24, 2014 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

At the Smart Cities Council, we believe strongly that technology should be in service to a city’s larger vision. Thus, we recommend that any smart city roadmap start with those larger goals in mind.

Once that’s out of the way, however, most smart city practitioners urge cities to seek out quick wins — projects that have a big return for a relatively small investment in money and time. If a city starts with “low-hanging fruit” projects, it can build momentum and public support. It can also help pay for future projects with savings from the early ones.

Although every city is different, here are eight areas that have proved to be excellent places to look for quick payback. By the way, payback isn’t always financial. Sometimes it comes in other forms, such as popularity rankings, business startups or civic enthusiasm.

1. Smart transportation. Most citizens put traffic at the top of the list of things they want solved. According to some studies, congestion reduces a city’s gross domestic product by somewhere between 1-3%. Smart transportation may not result in fare decreases. But it almost always rewards citizens with lower congestion and shorter travel times.

2. Energy efficiency. Energy efficiency programs can get underway without large expenditures. Many gains are possible through simple behavior changes – for instance, learning ways to save water, substituting more efficient light bulbs or learning to postpone non-essential electric use to non-peak times. What’s more, many energy services contractors will undertake work for no upfront costs. Instead, they take a portion of the savings.

3. Smart grids. The payback from a smart grid is not necessarily in lower electric rates. Rather, it may come in the form of reduced outages and greater reliability against storms and sabotage. City governments can gain great approval if they improve reliability and resiliency.

4. Smart water networks. By one estimate, 30% of all the water pumped worldwide does not reach its destination. A smart water network can pinpoint leaks and theft, gaining a quick payback in regions where water is costly.

5. Smart street lights. LED lighting makes possible big savings in energy costs. And same LEDs that save energy also save on “truck rolls.” They last much longer, so maintenance crews don’t have to spend as much time replacing lamps. What’s more, by networking the street lights – adding communications to each one – a city can gain a “canopy network” for the whole city that is paid for by the savings in energy and maintenance. And then you can use that network for other smart city applications.

6. Smart policing. Smart policing can have a dramatic impact on crime rates and public confidence. By feeding current and past crime statistics into analytical programs, cities can predict where crime is most likely to occur. And by equipping officers with cameras, laptops, tablets or smartphones, they can reduce the time spent on paperwork and increase the time on patrol.

7. Digital government services. You can often get a quick win by converting a government service from “manual” operation to a more convenient online or smartphone version. Done well, such projects can save money for the city while simultaneously improving citizen satisfaction (no more standing in line). There are dozens if not hundreds of possibilities, including licenses, permits, registration for social services, purchase of fare cards, reporting potholes and many, many more.

8. Smart payments: Payback from smarter payments can be quick – and significant. Cash and checks create huge costs for city administrations. By digitalizing all disbursements and collections, a city can generate significant savings and increase its operational efficiency. For example, when Toronto switched its social benefits payments to prepaid cards, it saved $2.5 million annually by eliminating the cost of issuing checks. The program was rolled out in less than a year.

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