Urban Upgrades

As Urban Populations Soar, Cities Are Getting Smart; but the Push to Tech Only Works if Teams Pay Attention to Stakeholders and Security




Sidewalk Labs’ vision for the Quayside district in Toronto, Ontario, Canada


The urban digital future is emerging in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In a new hyperconnected waterfront district that will be built from the ground up, sensors will be embedded everywhere and collect data on factors such as traffic flow, energy usage and air quality. Private cars will be banned in favor of autonomous vehicles, driven on streets made for pedestrians and cyclists. Modular buildings designed for flexibility will be constructed. Sensors may even track whether residents like the way outdoor furniture is arranged in green space.

It's a data-driven, high-efficiency vision revealed in October by Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google's parent company, Alphabet. The organization has teamed up with a government agency on this project to build the 12-acre (4.9-hectare) Quayside district. Sidewalk Labs is investing US$50 million alone on a yearlong planning process with government officials; plans eventually could be drawn up for a 750-acre (304-hectare) surrounding area. The project's all-encompassing scope amounts to a master-planned city—a far cry from the more focused smart city initiatives launched a few years ago, such as Barcelona's implementation of citywide free Wi-Fi via connected lampposts.

Smart city transformations have evolved into strategic programs with multiple stakeholders and measurable outcomes, says Frank Vieveen, Smart City program manager, City of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. “The objective now is to make our city future-proof,” he says.

Long-term benefits require agility and careful planning—and big investments. The worldwide market for smart city tech will reach US$775 billion in 2021, according to a 2017 BCC Research report. The Saudi government is helping to drive that number higher: It has set aside US$70 billion to invest in smarter cities, in the hopes of diversifying its economy beyond oil.


The first step in these projects is to think strategically about how to address multiple urban challenges, says Pascual Berrone, associate professor of strategic management at IESE Business School in Madrid, Spain. “No one single project defines a smart city,” he says. He heads IESE's Cities in Motion Index, an annual ranking of global smart cities. “Every city has different priorities and limited resources to achieve them.” Long-term goals have to be focused on the specific needs of the community.


“The big challenge is how to build and manage multiple integrated systems so they can speak to each other efficiently and securely.”

—Robert Muggah, Igarapé Institute, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil cities.

One of the early lessons smart city innovators learned is that to be successful, projects can't be delivered in isolation, says Stephanie Atkinson, CEO of market research firm Compass Intelligence, Bandera, Texas, USA. “The more collaboration there is, the more likely citizens are to benefit.” Most of these projects require a broad set of stakeholders, including multiple city agencies, technology vendors, public and private investors, academic institutions and community leaders.


“[Sensor data] could offer a template for deploying sensor networks in other cities.”

—Gordon Feller, smart cities consultant, San Francisco, California, USA

Getting so many diverse groups to collaborate successfully can be a challenge, especially if the project isn't attached to a specific need. Too often these projects start with an interesting piece of technology in search of a problem to solve, says Stan Curtis, vice president of platform development at internet of things (IoT) software company Urban Systems, Portland, Oregon, USA. It's easy to be swayed by exciting new solutions, but it's the wrong approach. “You need to ask the right question, confirming the real problem before testing new solutions,” he says.

This is why IoT technology is vital to smart city projects, says Ms. Atkinson. Such projects typically involve deploying data-collecting sensors and analytics tools to define a specific problem and then implementing infrastructure projects to solve it. “The future is all about using data to predict city needs,” she says.

Portland, Oregon's Ubiquitous Mobility for Portland (UB Mobile PDX) initiative exemplifies this approach. It aims to analyze data captured via street sensors to help choose the best projects to improve road, cycling and public transit options for all Portland residents. Many of the city's transportation projects need to be updated to extend transit choices to more low-income neighborhoods, Mr. Curtis says, noting that UB Mobile PDX was designed in part to address public transportation inequities.



“The objective now is to make our city future-proof.”

—Frank Vieveen, City of Rotterdam, the Netherlands


There's a downside to cities building far-flung networks of data sources and growing more reliant on data, however: They're more vulnerable. The networks that link a city's lights, power, traffic systems and other infrastructure are often integrated and require little human intervention to function. This makes them more efficient, but it also creates new opportunities for hackers.

A 2016 survey by Tripwire and Dimensional Research found that 98 percent of government IT professionals consider smart cities at risk for cyber-attacks. And more than half believe cities do not allocate enough cybersecurity resources to smart city projects; they cited limited budgets and political wrangling as the top barriers.


“The more collaboration there is, the more likely citizens are to benefit.”

—Stephanie Atkinson, Compass Intelligence, Bandera, Texas, USA

“The big challenge is how to build and manage multiple integrated systems so they can speak to each other efficiently and securely,” says Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It's a think tank focused on urban security and development issues. Unfortunately, efficiency and security can often be in conflict: Adding layers of security can interfere with data flow and reduce performance. “It's a paradox,” he says. “The smarter you get, the more vulnerable you become.”

To mitigate these risks, Mr. Muggah urges city planners to make data security a prominent piece of every project plan from the beginning and to build redundancies into networks. That likely means putting security experts on the team and demonstrating security measures as a condition of approval.

But cities also need to revisit regulations governing these projects, he says. For example, many municipalities have outdated laws that require all data to be stored in servers rather than the cloud—which can leave IT systems even more exposed to threats.


Along with delivering safe and effective solutions, smart city projects also have to be financially feasible. A lack of affordability is often the biggest obstacle to greenlighting initiatives, especially for smaller cities, Mr. Muggah says. But some innovations can often be sparked by the need to be frugal.


Police officers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil have piloted the CopCast app.

For example, a team at Igarapé developed its CopCast project with cash-strapped municipalities in mind. The mobile app built in collaboration with Google's Jigsaw turns smartphones into body cameras, providing inexpensive real-time digital windows into encounters between police officers and citizens. Officers affix a phone to their uniform, and the app tracks audio, video and GPS locations. The approach is far less expensive than proprietary body cameras and software, and it provides real-time data streams rather than requiring someone to download and review the video after a shift has ended. “Most of the police force are young and already have smartphones, so why not take advantage of that?” Mr. Muggah asks.

Igarapé began piloting the app with police forces in Rio de Janeiro and South Africa, and additional pilot projects with U.S. police forces began last year. “It's a cost-effective way to improve police accountability and public safety in the city,” he says.

“Initiatives that link communities to empowering technology create lasting benefits.”

—Gordon Feller

Other cities rely on external funding sources to bolster project options. For example, the city of Spokane, Washington, USA in 2016 co-founded a “smart city living lab” after pooling funds with organizations from the public and private sector. Its partners include Avista, the local energy company; Itron, a private-sector energy tech firm; McKinstry, an engineering and construction firm; and Washington State University. The analytics firm Gallup is actively assisting the collaboration.

The lab, called Urbanova, allows organizations and innovators to pilot technologies to be rolled out in their communities. It has achieved success in large part because of how the partners look out for each other, says Gordon Feller, a smart cities consultant who works with Gallup, San Francisco, California, USA. For any project to be approved, it has to have a clear objective that delivers value to every stakeholder.

“Anyone putting time or resources into a project has to believe it is core to their mission,” Mr. Feller says. “Otherwise they won't be focused on the goals.” The partners also agree to share insights and lessons learned to ensure everyone benefits from the effort.

The first Urbanova project, launched in January 2017, involved installing data sensors on 10 streetlights in Spokane to test the energy and safety benefits of dimming lights when people are not present. The project was expanded to an additional 29 streetlights in June.

The sensors also measure environmental factors, such as the impact of forest fires on air quality, to guide future project decisions. “The data will provide valuable insights into links between air quality and health. It could offer a template for deploying sensor networks in other cities,” Mr. Feller says.

The project illustrates how a single plan can provide benefits for all partners. Itron is using it as a testing ground for its IoT technology, McKinstry is demonstrating its ability to manage the project, Avista is looking to achieve energy efficiency goals, and Gallup aims to transform data gathered during the project into actionable insights. Stakeholders also are using the project to define a data governance model, data ownership, control and sharing.

Getting feedback from all major stakeholders can help project teams identify more risks and put more effective mitigation strategies in place, says Linda van Duivenbode, director of The Extremely Useful Company, a strategy consultancy, Griesheim, Germany.

“In a lot of cases, particularly with smaller cities, there is not enough upfront risk management in smart city project planning,” she says. Teams often work in isolation, implementing projects with very specific short-term goals, rather than working with a broader stakeholder group to define more robust long-term plans. “Bringing everyone to the table can help you understand the real issues you are trying to address and to implement more impactful solutions.”

But if a city can engage stakeholders and keep them focused on a common goal—like Spokane's government—the ROI is clear, Mr. Feller says. “Initiatives that link communities to empowering technology create lasting benefits that can be felt far beyond public-sector agencies.”


“If you don't risk project failure, you aren't pushing yourself.”

—Morten Kabell, City of Copenhagen, Denmark

Electronic information panels along bike lanes provide traffic alerts.


Part of the ITS plan includes efforts to reduce time to find parking spaces. Initially the city piloted the use of road sensors, but found the data wasn't always accurate because business owners often use spaces to store dumpsters or construction equipment. When officials figured out that the sensors didn't work, they shut down the pilot and are now testing the use of algorithms to predict parking space availability.

“We learned something new and we moved on,” Mr. Kabell says. “If you don't risk project failure, you aren't pushing yourself.”

This willingness to try ideas and cut loose the ones that aren't working has helped the city focus resources on scaling the projects that do work, he says. Early results suggest the city's ITS teams are on the right track. A pilot of the smart signals project shaved up to two minutes off bus routes during rush hour. More bikers than cars now cross through the center of Copenhagen daily, and forecasts show daily bike traffic across the city is set to grow by 25 percent overall by 2025—and by 36 percent during rush hour over the same period.

The efforts to encourage biking have been so successful that the ITS team is now focused on reducing bike traffic jams. In May 2017, the city began installing electronic information panels along bike lanes to warn bikers of impending traffic and to offer alternative routes.

It all adds up to real progress toward Copenhagen's ambitious 2025 carbon-neutrality goal—and perhaps a model that other cities looking to get smart can copy. The city's formula for success is fairly straightforward, Mr. Gaml says: set ambitious targets, define incremental goals and work with the private sector to test promising solutions. “We pushed the market to think differently about what they can produce,” he says. “That's how we have been able to innovate.” PM

Top 10 Tech Cities

The 2017 Cities in Motion Index ranks cities based on criteria including the number of broadband users and Wi-Fi hot spots.


1. Taipei, Taiwan ▲

2. New York, New York, USA

3. Baltimore, Maryland, USA

4. Seoul, South Korea

5. Tokyo, Japan

6. Amsterdam, the Netherlands

7. Shanghai, China

8. Beijing, China

9. Taichung, Taiwan

10. Chicago, Illinois, USA

Source: Cities in Motion Index 2017, IESE Business School

Intelligent Investments




Sources: Smart Cities: Growing New IT Markets, BCC Research, 2017; Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund


Smart Scaling

Rotterdam carefully executed a pilot project before implementing an improved citywide trash collection system.

A smart city solution that can't be scaled up isn't very smart. Frank Vieveen, program manager, City of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has seen a lot of cities deploy ambitious pilot projects that end up foundering. “If a solution can't be scaled, it won't work.”

The City of Rotterdam tries to avoid this failure scenario by building a long-term strategy for expansion into any plan. It might begin with a pilot, but it also has to detail how a later scaled-up phase would be funded and include metrics to prove workability. “Having a strategy to scale the solution must be part of every smart city project plan,” he says.

As an example of this approach, Mr. Vieveen points to his city's garbage collection project. The goal of the project, which installs sensors in waste containers, is to improve the efficiency of trash collection. One benefit is that citizens will no longer need to leave piles of garbage next to overly full waste bins around Rotterdam.

In early 2017, the city announced plans to expand the waste collection project to all of its 6,500 waste bins by the end of this year in collaboration with BBF Holding BV. That decision was only made after the pilot rapidly exceeded its goal of increasing overall efficiency by 20 percent. (The two-phase pilot began with installation of sensors in 150 trash bins in 2015; the team ramped up to more than 1,300 containers by the end of 2017.)

Currently, the sensors alert the waste removal company when a bin is 60 percent full, and then an analytics platform provides fill-level forecasting based on historic data to predict when the bin will need to be emptied. The platform then dynamically generates the most efficient garbage collection routes, which truck drivers follow. “The trucks used to follow a fixed route, emptying bins on a schedule whether they were full or not,” Mr. Vieveen says. “Now they only go where they are needed.”

But the drivers were an active stakeholder group throughout the pilot phase. The team directly engaged them, gathering feedback on route changes, how they would use data while en route and suggestions for optimizing the route updating process. The city was asking drivers to significantly change their processes and habits, so getting them on board was crucial. Thankfully, they appreciated being involved in the change process and quickly saw the benefits, Mr. Vieveen says.

“In most smart city initiatives, technology alone won't solve a problem. People have to be open to the change, or it won't work.”

“Having a strategy to scale the solution must be part of every smart city project plan.”

—Frank Vieveen, City of Rotterdam, the Netherlands




Target Practice

Copenhagen gets smart to achieve a bold carbon-neutral goal.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, building a smarter transportation system is an essential part of achieving the city's ambitious environmental goal: The government wants to be carbon neutral by 2025.

“All of our project investments are focused on achieving the carbon-neutral goal,” says Morten Kabell, former mayor of technical and environmental affairs, City of Copenhagen, Denmark.

To ensure progress, the city established specific targets for five key project categories within its Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) action plan. ITS is one program supporting the achievement of the carbon-neutral goal, says Mads Gaml, program manager of the Copenhagen government's technical and environmental affairs group, Copenhagen.

Among its targets are reducing journey time for bicyclists in key corridors by 10 percent, ensuring pedestrians require no more than 80 seconds to cross any intersection and reducing bus travel times by 5-20 percent on major routes. “We view these targets as our smart city key performance indicators,” Mr. Gaml says.

Having defined service goals helped his team evaluate the potential benefits of different technologies and build a portfolio of projects that delivers the greatest ROI on the DKK60 million ITS budget. Those projects ultimately defined a two-year, six-part traffic management program.

The program also provides a framework for vendors who are interested in providing smart technologies to Copenhagen. Giving vendors performance metrics pushes them to innovate, which benefits the vendors and the city, Mr. Gaml says. “We defined the goals and tasked them with coming up with solutions,” he says.

Public transportation in Copenhagen, Denmark



Slated to be completed at the end of the first quarter of this year, the two-year program includes implementing a traffic management platform, integrating traffic data from sources including road sensors and bus GPS systems, installing intelligent traffic signals that use data to prioritize the flow of buses and bicycles, and using simulation software to model different transport scenarios.

One of the program's goals is to give the city's traffic management team an integrated data stream so it can tweak traffic light rhythms to allow bikers and buses to “catch all the greens,” Mr. Kabell says. That makes biking more appealing and reduces bus fuel waste. “Buses use a lot of diesel every time they start and stop,” he notes. “The less they stop, the fewer emissions they generate.”


While most of the ITS-aligned program has been a success, there have been missteps.



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