Smart City Reboot

Smart City Reboot Photo

The pandemic didn’t kill smart cities—but it certainly changed their trajectory. As companies and governments slashed budgets to stay afloat amid a projected global recession, project leaders were forced to recalibrate: Instead of magnificent megaprojects aimed at turning the standard metropolis into a next-gen hyperconnected nerve center, teams are turning to smaller, more targeted initiatives.

In the United States, for example, the city of Las Vegas, Nevada announced in May it was expanding its smart parks program—but only after an initial pilot improved traffic congestion and decreased wrong-way driving. Working with project partner NTT Corp., the next phase promises to provide real-time alerts of safety conditions and maintenance issues to improve public safety and mobility at 10 parks by year’s end. 

Across the world, spending on smart city initiatives is expected to more than double by 2023, according a 2019 report by IDC. A follow-up issued in February of 2020 found that while that much of that growth will be sustained among the top spenders in the short term, the market is “quite dispersed” across midsize and small cities investing in relatively small projects. The 2019 IDC report said much of the spending would be on resilient energy and infrastructure, and predicted vehicle-to-everything connectivity, digital twin and officer wearables would see the fastest spending growth over the five-year forecast. The report also projected the United States, Western Europe and China will account for more than 70 percent of global smart city spending.

Yet progress has been “harder than imagined,” writes Richard Threlfall, KPMG’s global head of infrastructure, on the World Economic Forum blog. Pointing to issues like poor connectivity, onerous regulations and insufficient funding, he calls for five steps to speed up the process to “usher in a new era of digital infrastructure”:

1. Governments should take the lead.
2. Adapt to evolving technologies and risks.
3. Put data at the center of policy.
4. Use a broad range of policy levers.
5. Attract private capital.

Taking It Project by Project

U.K. smart streetlight provider Telensa has deployed smart lighting nodes for over 100 customers—cities, counties and local governments of varying size—around the world. The sensor-embedded streetlights are designed to help cities cut energy and maintenance costs while improving service. They also make good candidates for pilot projects—building buy-in for wider smart city applications, says Jon Lewis, vice president of product management, marketing and partners, Telensa, Cambridge, England. 

A project-to-project approach also helps teams build lessons learned for future phases—or even larger-scale projects down the road. As telecom giant Qualcomm has transformed its campus in San Diego, California, USA into a micro-smart city over the past year, the company has staggered new technologies. The site can then serve as a testing site for a range of innovations, from light poles that function as internet hot spots to HVAC systems outfitted with sensors that manage energy consumption.

Developing in phases may also provide a powerful rebuttal to several high-profile smart city failures. The latest victim? Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs canceled a nearly CAD$4 billion initiative to transform the Quayside district in Toronto, Ontario, Canada into a bleeding-edge incubator, complete with robot-monitored trash bins, heated pavements that would melt snow and self-driving delivery vehicles. While the pandemic exacerbated existing delays and punctured funding for Quayside, the project’s bubble burst long before that, with critics painting it as a dystopic vision of the future that compromises citizen privacy in the name of data-driven innovation.

The biggest culprit for struggling megaprojects is “cities or governments [trying] to be too ambitious,” Lewis says. With dozens of companies and myriad stakeholders involved, it can be difficult to build a shared vision, he explains. “The cities and suppliers do not work together on the real value proposition of each use case.” 

That’s not to say that scaling back is an automatic win. For starters, teams implementing each component must align with other projects to ensure a fully functioning ecosystem. One solution: Build the data-sharing framework first. In Chongqing, China, AI provider Terminus Group revealed in October that it will create an operating system to connect all components of the planned Cloud Valley smart city.

Such sprawling operating systems are necessary for smart-city adoption to truly take hold. Lewis says that allows cities to then go in with “a common approach to data so they can share information between departments and [encourage] a digital ecosystem of suppliers that can innovate at a global level.” —Ambreen Ali