I Spent 3 Days with Leaders in Smart Cities. Here’s What I Learned.

Imagine you are the Chief Technology Officer of a major metropolitan city. You have a $122,000,000 budget that you need to spend wisely.

Should you hire additional engineers to make your open data portal more feature-rich? Should you run a pilot to create hazard maps for first responders using the latest mobile LIDAR scanners? What about the upgrades your data servers need?

At the Smart and Secure Communities Challenge Expo, Lindsey Parker, the CTO of Washington D.C., shared how she makes these tough choices. The expo, and pre-conference events, gathered government leaders and technology providers from around the world to share their bumpy journeys towards building smarter cities. I had the opportunity to share what we’re doing at Temboo.

Since 2014, the National Institute of Standards of Technology (NIST) has been convening cities and organizations to work collaboratively to build smart city solutions- 600 in all.

At the conference, I could feel the collective excitement and wariness of where the group stands five years later. Here are my three main takeaways about smart cities, including examples from West Java, Indonesia, Lafayette, Louisiana and Syracuse, New York.

No one agrees on the exact moment you become a “smart” city…

Innovative cities that leverage digital technology and connectivity to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operations and services, and economic prosperity for all citizens, while ensuring long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability.

World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization

By this definition, all cities are smart. There are, however, two main differentiators:

  1. The degree to which cities adopt this method of practice
  2. Access to financing to fund infrastructure and system upgrades

West Java, Indonesia: Innovation Outside of City Limits

Homes in a valley in West Java

West Java, Indonesia offers a great example of a local government transforming to embody smart city principles. By population, approximately 50 million people, the West Java province would be the 30th largest country in the world.

At the conference, Setiaji, the Head of ICT and Digital Services for West Java, described the province’s mix of large infrastructure and industry-specific initiatives. For example, its Desa Digital (Digital Village) imitative aims to provide free WiFi to 600 villages by installing very small aperture terminals in communal buildings. The ultimate goal is to provide internet access in all 5,000+ villages in the province (Open Gov).

They’ve also partnered with a local startup, eFishery, to bring IoT to the fishing industry. According to eFishery, 80% of fish farming costs are related to feeding. eFishery automates feeding shrimp and fish to improve feed performance, water quality and fish growth.

The project also considered the full scope of a farmer’s activities, such as sales and insurance. In collaboration with Weebly, a platform for building eCommerce sites, farmers built at online presence for their farms. West Java plans to help create more eFishers similar to the one in the video below (the blue devices are the autofeeders).

West Java stands out in its approach to include major industries within its smart city plan, and focus on the needs of rural populations.

Lafayette, Louisiana, USA: Putting Culture First

Train station in Lafayette
Photo courtesy of Lafayette Economic Development Authority.

In Lafayette, Louisiana, the city’s unique history and culture is big business. Every year this city of 235,000 people receives nearly 3 million visitors!

Lafayette has a number of more traditional smart city projects, including WiFi on all public buses flow sensors in waterways for stormwater management. What stands out, however, is their initiative to develop an asset inventory portal for all cultural and creative assets.

The city envisions two main benefits:

  1. It will be able to create more and better grant applications that fund the protection of its cultural assets
  2. It will be easier to evaluate how zoning and infrastructure changes will impact cultural assets

Moving beyond the inventory of infrastructural assets to cultural assets is a point of recognition of the importantance of heritage.

…but everyone agrees smart streetlights are the greatest!

Smart streetlights in San Mateo, California
Smart streetlights in San Mateo, California. Photo courtesy of the City of San Mateo.

Given that the variety of technologies bundled under “smart” city is so diverse, I was shocked to hear three presentations about smart streetlights.

The appeal is understandable.

Smart streetlights are not controversial – although the mayor of San Leandro did receive one complaint from a constituent who felt blinded by the strong LEDs.

So many cities have implemented smart streetlights that the technology feels de-risked. Most importantly, cities immediately save on their energy bill. Itron estimates cities save 50% by switching from halogen bulbs to LEDs, and can save even more with dynamic dimming.

The conversations did reveal some nuances I never considered.

How Two Cities in New York will Keep the Lights On for Less

In Schenectady, New York, the government is partnering with a local newspaper to get out the word on the work it’s doing.

The Daily Gazette is building a media site where journalists report exclusively on discoveries from the forthcoming open data portal, and initiatives like smart streetlights. The hope is that the Daily Gazette will be able to share information with a wider audience, and encourage citizens to hold the government accountable.

Frontpage of The Daily Gazette
Photo courtesy of The Daily Gazette.

Two hours away in Syracuse, New York, a utility company owns the city’s 17,507 streetlights- not the government.

Syracuse is spending $38,000,000 to buy its streetlights and upgrade the lights to LEDs. Owning the infrastructure is a big step.

Syracuse.com reported that the utility was previously unwilling to sell or upgrade the lights, themselves. The city expects to save $3,000,000 a year; it currently pays the utility company $5,000,000 a year.

In the future, Syracuse plans to install additional sensors on the streetlights, such as acoustic sensors to detect noise pollution.

Until they have to connect the smart streetlights with the smart trash cans, and the smart buildings, plus the…

In short, we have an interoperability nightmare.

The challenge of connecting hardware and software from different vendors speaks to why Temboo exists. After attending the conference, I realized we are years away from standardized protocols for smart city deployments. The National Institute of Science & Technology, IEEE, and other government and private consortia are still in the beginning phases of developing standards. Even if standards do exist, I expect hardware manufacturers would only adopt them if they were mandated by city governments.

In the meantime, Kosmos and our API Toolkit are useful tools to overcome interoperability challenges. Click the links to learn more about them, or email the Temboo team at hey@temboo.com.