'Smart Nodes' Don't Make Smart Cities

December 12, 2019

Smart Cities have been a common topic of discussion for municipalities and city planners for years. After a decade of discussion and development the idea of a smart city has evolved into a buzz word that describes some interconnected tech utopia with no clear path to realization.

The Term

I recently responded to a reporter query on the topic of practical deployments for smart cities and the major barriers cities experience in adopting these technologies (if the article is ever published I'll be sure to add the link here). His questions really got me thinking about the term and a fundamental assumption that's baked into it.

In general, when we envision a Smart City we see 'smart nodes' installed at every crosswalk, street sign, or city bus. We imagine waterfalls of ones and zeros pouring from these magic grey boxes, finding their home on the Mayors iPad in the form of notifications, graphs, and recommended actions. Unfortunately for most municipalities this idealistic view of smart cities is as far off as flying cars and lightsabers. The difference between a future straight out of the world of The Jetsons and our view of modern smart cities is that we actually do have the technology to set up nodes at every street corner and monitor the data.

The Barrier

The common misconception is that if a city has municipal tech leaders and a boatful of money they can purchase and install the infrastructure required to become a 'Smart City'. This, however, stems from the assumption that 'smart nodes', along with even more data is the barrier to making a city smart. Unsurprisingly a municipality doesn't graduate and become a Smart City once they've met some sensor per capita quotient. The primary barrier is facilitating information systems that can support multi sourced data and, most importantly, decision making strategies that can leverage them. The following reviews Smart Cities Maturity Model presented by TheUrbanTide.com:

Level City Management Status Smart City Status
1: Ad-Hoc Siloed Operation focused, some digital driven service improvement
2: Opportunistic System Collaboration Emergent data sharing and holistic thinking
3: Purposeful And Repeatable System Integration Strategy led, outcome driven. Enabled by technology investment
4: Operationalized Managed System Data enabled dynamic intelligence systems
5: Optimized Sustainable and Open 'System of Systems' Continuously adaptive city-wide deployment

'Smart nodes' have been drilled into our concept of a smart city, but are really a band-aid solution to the larger challenge of designing processes and systems that best allow municipal leaders to gather relevant information and make data driven decisions. Most organizations try to skip stage one and jump to the future by installing 'smart infrastructure'. Without the correct baseline this data is doomed to be forgotten and misused.

Seamless Smart

What's often neglected during 'Smart City' discussions is the amount of data that is already being collected by a municipality. Much of this data sits and collects dust in filing cabinets or lays dormant on a server. The process to seamlessly pull information from any service or program and compare it among its peers needs to be the first step for any municipality before installing any infrastructure. Answers to simple questions like: How many people attended skating lessons in 2019? Should be easily accessible to anyone in the municipality, not just those in the Parks and Recreation Department. Moving out of the Ad Hoc stage is no small feat and isn't easily solved by technology. It must, instead, be managed through policy and streamlined communication procedures. Once the silos between departments, programs, and services are bridged, it becomes much easier to begin using data to empower decision making processes.

Smart Practices

In the end, a smart city is defined by how it collects, manages, and distributes its information. Not how much data it collects or the sensors it has in place. Seamless sharing and management of information can then be used to make data driven decisions and policies. That is the difference between a Smart City and a city full of 'Smart Nodes'. No array of smart nodes will ever make up for a municipality that fails to organize, share, and utilize the data they already have.

Much like the adage... perfect practice makes perfection. Smart Practices make Smart Cities.

Jacoby Joukema
Jacoby is Co-Founder and Managing Director of InFlow. He is passionate about data driven decision making and commercializing cutting edge technologies.
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