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3 Approaches to Smart Cities

Centralized, less formal, experimental

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There’s no one right way to use data to improve public services and quality of life.

Thanks to widespread connectivity and the emergence of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and applications, cities around the world are rolling out systems designed to gather and analyze data for the public good. From connected LED streetlights to dynamic traffic monitoring, cities are investing in solutions that save money, deliver services more effectively, and make more efficient use of resources.

But no two cities identical, and the term “smart cities” encompasses a wide array of solutions meant to solve problems on a civic scale. In fact, some government and technology leaders even bristle at the term “smart cities” itself, thinking it places too much emphasis on prototype, whiz-bang technologies, and not enough on solving actual problems.

Still, cities around the globe are solving problems with IT through a variety of different approaches. Here are three that have been successful:

1. Centralized

A formal, centralized approach to smart cities solutions has allowed Singapore to rapidly establish itself as a worldwide leader in the space – with the city being named the “Smart City of 2018” at the Smart City Expo World Congress. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) is tasked with implementing the city-state’s smart cities initiatives, which range from the “Ask Jamie” personal assistant and the Beeline transit app to a one-stop business grants portal and a digital workplace suite for public sector workers.

autodesk smart city

Singapore established its “Smart Nation” program in 2014. Then, in 2017, it committed to investing $2.4 million in the program over the following four years. This centralized focus and level of commitment has helped Singapore to quickly develop solutions that go beyond what is commercially available and leverage the unique experiences and insights of local residents and workers. The Beeline app, for instance, responds to commuters’ demands, enabling private bus operators to provide adaptive shuttle services that can evolve over time. The app also gives operators access to data analytics tools for fleet management and operations.

Singapore is taking this centralized approach a step further with the creation of the Punggol Digital District (PDD), which relies on one integrated master plan to bring together a business park, a university, and community facilities. Officials hope that the district will serve as a sort of smart cities laboratory, with the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) developing solutions to be prototyped and tested within the district, leading to a higher rate of success.

2. Less Formal

One reason that some people resist the term “smart cities” is because, in their view, cities are already inherently “smart” (meaning that all large metropolitan areas leverage population density to more efficiently connect residents to goods, services, and employment). With smartphone technology and connectivity becoming pervasive in urban areas in the developing world, stakeholders in many of these cities are taking advantage of this new connectivity (and the accompanying data creation) to improve the operations of existing service networks — many of which operate separately from the government.

image of a less formal smart city

One example is Nairobi, where mobile phone penetration skyrocketed from 14 percent to 82 percent between 2005 and 2015. Researchers from MIT have worked to use mobile phone data to map the ways that residents (many of whom rely on informal transit networks) move throughout the city. The research resulted in an open platform for mapping urban informal transit — not just in Kenya, but also in Latin American and Caribbean cities. The platform is helping cities to develop mobile routing applications and new transit maps, thereby relieving congestion and making transit options more predictable for citizens.

3. Experimental

Because most smart cities solutions are relatively immature, many cities are still exploring and validating different use cases to see which have the greatest potential to yield the greatest benefits. Some cities, for example, will install connected LED streetlights in an attempt to drive down energy usage, and then experiment with using the new connectivity for additional applications, such as traffic monitoring.

image of an experimental smart city

Other cities, such as Boston, take a more entrepreneurial approach — quickly cycling through a number of different smart cities initiatives to see which have the most potential, and applying lessons learned to future endeavors. Boston does have more “traditional” smart cities applications, such as a mobile app for reporting nonemergency issues like potholes and graffiti, as well as a parking app that allows motorists to pay for parking and sends alerts when meters are set to expire. But city officials are also working on initiatives — often in partnership with residents — to prepare the city to adapt to climate change, improve the delivery of utilities, and optimize the flow of traffic.

Boston had created an office of “New Urban Mechanics,” billed as a civic innovation incubator and research and development lab. The office has experimented with initiatives including dynamic pricing for parking, an app to collect data on street bumps, and solar-powered park benches that charge mobile devices and collect environmental data.

In a sense, most smart cities solutions are still somewhat “experimental.” But, with their varied approaches, cities around the world are showing that these experiments can yield tangible, real-world benefits that improve the lives of their citizens.

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