Smart City Predictions
Published January 17, 2019
While 2018 was filled with a number of successful smart city deployments, it also revealed significant challenges that will only intensify in years to come.
The most pressing challenge to be addressed throughout 2019 is earning the public’s trust in smart city projects. Towards the end of 2018, we saw major data privacy concerns emerge from citizens. From these concerns a heated, but healthy discourse between citizens, local governments, and private sector companies rose to mainstream media prominence. Citizens’ expectations of privacy have begun to challenge the murky data privacy policies described by many in the private sector. 2019 will be the year of the smart city for the citizen.
As three startups working with city governments around the world, our predictions for the future of the smart city in 2019 are shaped not only by our work with local government leaders, but also our learnings from citizens, who ultimately are the end customers and users of smart city technologies.
These predictions fundamentally reflect the need for the smart city movement to be more empathetic to citizen needs and for the relationship between vendor and city government to continue to evolve into one of collaboration and less of a contentious sales pitch of the shiniest, newest technology.
Initiatives that can’t be measured won’t be started.
For the past few years since founding Soofa, we have been part of big and small smart cities pilot projects and have collaborated with nearly 120 cities around the world. Unfortunately, over the years, the term “pilot” has become much less about being the critical, rigorously tested and measured first phase of a broader deployment of smart cities technology, and instead is used to simply make something feel like a risk free way to just get something done. It is a mechanism to get something done quickly but not necessarily make that thing last.
While this is helpful to accelerate the number of new technology implementations in the short run (i.e. cities have grown their pipeline of innovation projects and built up the top of their innovation funnels), it isn’t helpful in ensuring the sustainability of those implementations in the long run.
That said, in 2019, we will see pilot projects vetted more rigorously before being deployed, and a clearer goals set up front by diverse stakeholder groups, including numerous city departments, private sector partners, and, most importantly, the public. This will mean fewer projects will be launched overall, but those that are will be more likely to get operationalized and scaled up to have a greater impact for the everyday lives of citizens living in the smart city. The City of Austin’s SmartMobility group has a Public-Private Partnership Opportunity Expression of Interest Form, which will likely emerge in more cities as a way to evaluate pilot projects more objectively and ensure they actually have the potential to solve a real problem facing citizens, at scale.
There will be many more interdepartmental smart city RFIs and RFPs.
As the shift towards rigorously measured pilot projects happens in 2019, so too will a shift towards more holistically written smart city RFPs and RFIs. We’re already seeing this emerge with the latest City and County of Denver Smart City RFP.
For all smart cities projects to be successfully implemented, iterated on, and operationalized across the city in a way that tangibly benefits their citizens, these projects need to go beyond a single department so that their applications and benefits to other entities in the city can be realized. 2019 will be the year when more projects than ever advance beyond an innovation team or smart city coordinator, serving as more than just a press release. As more structured learnings emerge from well executed pilot projects and smart cities working groups within cities throughout 2019, we will see more cities issuing smart city RFIs and RFPs that are multi-departmental in nature and therefore, address a diverse set of problems and challenges that can be solved by the deployment of a single technology.
2019 will be the year where the top down and bottom up approaches to smart city development meet in the middle. What’s more, we won’t be surprised to see these RFIs and RFPs dropping the “smart city,” and instead will be focused on the actual problems emerging or fully commercialized technologies can solve.
Public private partnerships will diversify and engage the long tail of SMBs.
Public private partnerships will extend to the long tail of SMBs in 2019. Infrastructure like digital outdoor communication platforms and kiosks have risen to prominence ever since the City of New York transformed its existing public pay phones to digital kiosks. The business model, which is to provide public amenities free of charge in exchange for the right to sell advertising, has been replicated in dozens of other cities across the globe. However, for as much as this model currently promotes the fact that it supports small businesses and promotes economic development, we will see a new business model emerge, one that will be funded by small business advertising revenue.
Small and medium sized businesses play a critical role in giving neighborhoods and cities their identities; if given an opportunity that is mutually beneficial and valuable, these businesses can add a new source of funding into dynamic public private partnerships. This will be led in part by a shift in the initial financing mechanisms of kiosks and public communication platforms and the costs of the devices themselves. Lower cost devices, combined with capital from investors who care deeply about the experience of living in and visiting cities will help create the shift towards engaging the long tail in financing a return on smart city infrastructure.
Cities and vendors will lead with the needs of citizens.
2019 is when citizen-facing smart cities efforts — especially Internet of Things (IoT) efforts — will be driven from the bottom-up, not top-down. There was a time, not so long ago, when many smart cities efforts could be legitimately accused of chasing the newest, shiniest things, rather than addressing the most pressing problems. Caught up in the excitement of the early days of a promising new industry, it was too common to pursue technology just for technology’s sake, rather than thinking critically about which problems government can and should address with better use of data and technology.
Great progress was made on this front in 2018, but 2019 is the year that this dynamic will change once and for all. Ideally, all smart cities efforts begin with asking residents, in one way or another: what are the most significant problems in your day to day life that the city can improve by better use of data and technology? What are the city services you’d most like to see improved and why? This phrase, “lead with the need,” and the upfront and ongoing, meaningful community engagement it reflects, is absolutely critical to ensuring that smart cities efforts are both inclusive and responsive to residents’ needs.
Innovation will go deeper in cities, beyond smart city groups and into all departments
In many larger cities, innovation and technology efforts have been led by Chief Information & Chief Innovation Officers and in smaller cities, by city managers and sometimes mayors. Often times, the departments that are tasked with actually implementing initiatives and projects (public works, planning, engineering, etc.) have been hesitant and skeptical of smart cities efforts.
Historically, that skepticism has made sense, given the incredible responsibilities of departments like public works. But as the outcomes of smart cities efforts are becoming more and more measurable and more and more impressive – and as billion-dollar deferred maintenance backlogs become even more common in US cities – 2019 will be the year that these historically traditional departments will take note and begin to seriously consider smart cities as a possible money-saver. Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, for example, has had tremendous early success in using sensors in its water system to reduce combined sewer overflows and is betting that smart technology will be a key to complying with its EPA consent decree.
There will be pushback on smart cities conferences from vendors and cities.
2018 saw a massive uptick in the number of smart cities conferences. 2019 appears to be on track for more growth. If you wanted to, you could attend a different smart cities conference, trade show or workshop practically every week. In 2019, the sheer number of smart cities conferences will mean that city officials – and companies! – will be more discerning about which conferences to attend by determining the ROI for each conference attended and sponsored.
The uptick in similarly-focused smart cities conferences also means that 2019 runs the very real risk of creating a smart cities echo chamber…that the same conversations will occur between the same group of industry leaders, just with different city backdrops. Seeking out deeper engagement from city peers with different perspectives will cause city officials to increasingly turn online to city-only learning networks and to in person deep-dive workshop-style events in 2019.
AI will prevail, making actionable the treasure trove of data cities have available.
Data has no doubt been the fuel powering the smart city industry. As the smart city vertical has grown, solutions rolling out have often had data collection at their core, ranging from IoT sensors to civic engagement platforms – the main use case was collecting information.
Cities have risen to the challenge, investing resources and brainpower into building amazing data infrastructure. And now – they’re beginning to realize that data alone isn’t enough. 2019 will be all about making this data actionable and Artificial Intelligence is fast becoming the tool of choice. Once the subject of Hollywood sci-fi hits, thanks to recent advances in the field, AI has finally matured into accessible and replicable use cases that make sense – ranging from predicting the next car crash (like Waycare) to understanding wide scale resident sentiment like we do at ZenCity.
In 2019, AI-based analysis will become the standard for leveraging the treasure trove of data cities have, by generating actionable, in-depth insights out of vast amounts of information. We’ll see Artificial Intelligence being used on a wide scale for automation, decision-making, and civic engagement. And that will only be the tip of the iceberg of this exciting world of capabilities.
“Off the shelf” solutions will cater to small and mid-size cities.
Traditionally, the golden rule of smart city implementations has been that they take a long time and that they’re tailor-made. Customized, long-term projects have been the bread and butter of smart city solution providers.
But 2019 will see a positive shift in a new direction. As the industry is maturing, we’ll start seeing more and more “off the shelf” solutions – SaaS platforms, end-to-end IoT solutions, mass production hardware, and more, make up for a growing chunk of the industry.
This makes sense – technology is evolving and as best practices are discovered, they can be easily duplicated since cities often share similar challenges. The change provides great opportunities on both the city side and the business side. Business will leverage the effectiveness, replicability and easy tweaking of SaaS, platforms, and other easily scalable solutions.
The biggest winners from this change will be SMCs (small and medium cities), who in fact make up the vast majority of the cities globally. These SMCs, who often lack the resources and/or know-how to embark on tailor-made projects, will finally be able to easily tap into technological solutions that are cost efficient and that have already been tested by other cities. This will create tremendous benefit, leapfrogging many communities into the smart city space, positively impacting the quality of life for more citizens in more places, and opening new markets for vendors. The wide reach of such solutions will in itself create new benchmarks for smart city services – benchmarks cities will strive to adhere to.
Cities and vendors will be more accountable for privacy than ever before
2018 was a landmark year for data privacy. This year we saw the best and the worst of how businesses, governments, and individuals around the world are grappling with privacy – ranging from the Cambridge Analytica scandal on the one hand, to the EU’s comprehensive GDPR roll out, on the other. If privacy is a concern in the private sector, the importance of protecting privacy increases tenfold when it comes to government and the public sector, and so do consumer expectations.
2019 will be the year when cities and residents alike will start asking the hard questions about how and why different types of data are being collected and used. As residents hold all levels of governments accountable, so too will cities turn to the vendors they work with and demand a higher standard of data privacy. What’s the 2019 rule of thumb in the smart city space? We believe it’s not to single out an individual unless absolutely necessary.
2019 will be the year of replicable, scalable smart city innovations
Overall, we are optimistic that 2019 will see some of the most successful and carefully measured smart city projects launch, grow, and be sustained with the support of citizens. If done right, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the term “smart city” fade away, as the focus of cities and private sector companies shifts towards solving real problems for citizens – the smart city should become the contemporary city, one that solves its most pressing problems effectively, efficiently, and sustainably – both environmentally and economically.
What do you think? Share your 2019 smart city predictions with us.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
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