As many consumers seek new opportunities to digitize their homes with intelligent stoves, refrigerators, and thermostats, a grander approach to digitization is also occurring in cities. For decades, the dream of an always-connected “smart city” has captured the imagination of many science-fiction writers and city planners, and at last, new initiatives from public and private sources have emerged to introduce new ways to create a universally connected and interactive city.
Recent smart city innovations
In the last few years, major metropolitan centers and small, growing cities alike have adopted smart city initiatives. These initiatives have come in the form of large public works projects to improve vital city systems, such as core energy and transportation systems, through combinations of taxpayer dollars and private partnership. Hong Kong, where mass transit was greatly improved with technological innovation, provides an example of a smart city’s potential benefits. Other cities are considering similar projects, as well as initiatives to reduce energy consumption and revamp dated electrical and energy infrastructure.
Meanwhile, another attractive form of smart city innovation comes in the form of small, start-up based projects, funded primarily with private venture capital and highly visible to residents. The world’s largest public Wi-Fi network in New York City is currently under development through a new, cooperatively-funded innovation. Cities are seeing these case study projects as a way to improve the “public good” for mostly low-income residents, while minimizing public costs and maximizing overall exposure. Even initiatives as simple as installing smart cycling programs can place the city in a more contemporary, positive light.
The Private vs. Public problem
The debate between these large, public projects and small, privately funded ventures remains hotly contested in some cities. For the city managers and public servants, most smart innovations often focus on less exciting, but still equally important endeavors. A core example is improving transportation systems with more accurate management and tracking of heavy rail lines, bus routes, and ferry systems to increase system capacity, offer more transparent updates, and reduce waiting times. This is also true for improving other core infrastructure with more connectivity, such as in waste and water management, or energy distribution. Firms such as IBM are interested and invested in collaborating with cities to provide the technology and services necessary in designing, implementing, and improving these large systems.
However, the average citizen will hardly recognize or benefit from these improvements, except perhaps through the high cost associated with them. This in turn makes smaller, more case study oriented projects, such as New York’s Wi-Fi network, more appealing to a city’s taxpayers. What this also creates is a dispute in what’s best spent and invested with taxpayer money, since large infrastructure projects can takes years to implement and citizens may wait years to reap the benefits. Meanwhile, the low-cost, high-visibility of free Public Wi-Fi and similar projects continues to attract more public support and interest in the media.
Finding economic and structural symbiosis
The success of smart cities will depend on finding a balance between these various initiatives. Both have benefits in increasing the livability of both small and large cities, as well as attracting a worldwide audience. City planners will need to find ways to implement large, smart infrastructure initiatives without losing sight of the low-cost, high-visibility initiatives that attract public support. Finding a way to equate the value of both as part of the greater city structure will be necessary as more cities search for ways to digitize their streets.