Apr 28 2022

Holistic Smart Tech Projects Yield Community Benefits, Experts Say

Cities can capitalize on fresh federal grants to deploy smart technology.

There was a time when few pedestrians chose to make the short but dark and dingy trek through a highway underpass between the West End Historic District of Dallas and Victory Park, where the Dallas Mavericks play. More often, they got in cars and drove around it, taking twice as much time, emitting greenhouse gases and costing them money to park.

In 2019, the Dallas Innovation Alliance installed an archway of rainbow-colored lights that could change for events or holidays, such as a red, white and blue scheme for the Fourth of July. And the display doesn’t just make the passage more pleasant: Sensors embedded in the dynamic lighting system detect pedestrian traffic, allowing the city to assess the public’s use of the tunnel, says Jen Sanders, executive director of the North Texas Innovation Alliance, a consortium formed to integrate smart technology efforts across the region.

“It activates as more people are walking through,” she says. “People feel safer, and then you have more pedestrians that are walking to the game instead of getting in their cars and driving.”

For Dallas and other smart cities across the country, the value of such technology is in the collection and analysis of data that helps them deploy resources and deliver services more efficiently, ultimately improving citizens’ lives. In the illuminated archway, for example, sensors could be installed to send Dallas law enforcement officials alerts if a crowd has gathered at an unusual time, indicating that suspicious activity may be occurring.

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Intelligent Transportation Systems Top List of Infrastructure Priorities

Cities building smart infrastructure into their operations have most commonly focused on transportation — of vehicles and people — as well as public safety and utility systems. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress in 2021, includes $500 million over five years for Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grants, targeted to municipal technology projects that improve transportation efficiency and safety.

“It’s a game-changing, once-in-a-lifetime investment,” says Ned Cabot, senior director of country digital acceleration in the Americas for Cisco.

He and other smart city experts see federal funding benefits extending well beyond coordinated traffic lights. Cities are evolving their use of smart technology, applying sensors and artificial intelligence to bridge the digital divide and solve other social inequities, such as education access and neighborhood neglect. Even small, rural areas have the chance to get up to smart speed.

A smart city infrastructure starts with its broadband backbone: a fiber network for high-speed internet connection across a community. A robust 5G mobile network supplements the connectivity. Numerous sensors and devices connect to those networks. The Internet of Things collects and carries data to municipal departments overseeing public works, public safety, public utilities and — most of all — intelligent transportation systems.

ITS can “drive sustainability and better resource management,” says Mike Hernon, the smart cities director for Winbourne Consulting in Arlington, Va., and a former CIO for the city of Boston. “Easier, more sustainable, greener moving of people — that is certainly the promise of ITS.”

Highly intelligent cameras along a highway, for example, can be used in a wide range of applications. They can be simple, such as variable message boards that tell drivers when to take an alternate route to avoid sitting in traffic. They can be complex, like video systems equipped with machine learning software that identifies the most important images to show control room operators in the event of an accident.

EXPLORE: How to make cybersecurity a priority for smart cities?

Smart Cities Consider the Big Picture Across Disparate Initiatives

Data alone does not make cities smart, says Nick Maynard, co-founder and CEO of US Ignite, an organization that encourages development of smart communities and public-private partnerships to further the implementation of sensor and networking technology. “They really have to pull it together and create something that’s useful for the specific decision that’s going to be made,” he says.

A truly smart infrastructure, Hernon says, depends on government and community leaders coming together to decide how they want to use the technology and for what goals. They need to get out of their silos and look at the big picture.

“You really do need to feed into a common data platform, so you can really get that integrated look,” Hernon says. “In a smart city, ideally, it’s a comprehensive approach to the whole jurisdiction and citizen engagement. So, everything the city does and provides should be coordinated.”

The new law encourages city governments to take that holistic approach by providing resources to look at the big picture, beyond the restrictions of individual projects.

“This infrastructure act is an unparalleled for cities and counties to really make progress by leaps and bounds into their smart cities,” Hernon says. “I am a big proponent for a coordinated approach with leadership buy-in from the top developing a strategy, putting in a government structure, getting multiple stakeholders in the room and looking at the financing, because the infrastructure act might not pay for everything.”

Ned Cabot
We’ve really learned what the digital divide means in the last two years. It’s top of mind for everybody.”

Ned Cabot Senior Director of Country Digital Acceleration in the Americas, Cisco

Small Cities Need Help Implementing Smart Tech

The SMART program grew out of the Smart Cities Challenge, a 2015 initiative of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Cities competed for a $40 million pot of money — plus extra kicked in by private investor donations — toward their smart tech projects. Columbus, Ohio, won the challenge, and many other competitors found alternative funding to launch their projects, Maynard says.

US Ignite was a sponsor of the Smart Cities Challenge and helped conceive the new SMART grant program to distribute more money to more cities of different sizes and with different projects, from autonomous vehicles to drone deployment.

“The SMART program could be really instrumental in driving the adoption for those underserved communities,” Maynard says. “The very largest cities have managed this, but without a program like SMART, I think a lot of smaller communities would have just been left behind.”

Smaller cities often lack comprehensive cybersecurity plans for the smart systems they have in place, leaving those systems vulnerable, Cisco’s Cabot says. Take the case of Oldsmar, Fla., which set up an automated metering system for its water treatment plant. Hackers infiltrated the system and tried to sabotage the water supply by escalating chemical inputs to dangerous levels.

The federal money will also help smaller and rural communities attract the attention of private industry to invest in smart technology. And a provision of the infrastructure act requires local commitment for some programs — with cities contributing perhaps 20 percent of the cost while the federal money covers 80 percent. Cybersecurity is reimbursed at 100 percent, Cabot notes.

RELATED: Transit agencies boost efficiency, resiliency and safety through IT modernization and the Internet of Things.

Governments Leverage Infrastructure Investments for Community Benefits

The earliest versions of smart city infrastructure focused on government operations, not community benefits, Cabot says. “You could do a lot of municipal innovation if the city is connected and the residents aren’t,” he says. “It’s smart parking. It’s smart lighting. They weren’t thinking first about getting folks connected.”

Now that’s changing, partly because the federal funding has come in the wake of the pandemic and national recognition of inequities in connectivity.

Smart cities and states are trying to reach those areas with infrastructure already in place. Fiber laid along highways for transportation communications can dually serve remote communities that broadband industry providers have ignored, Cabot says. And a historically black college in the South is looking to extend its campus network to surrounding neighborhoods that lack broadband access.

“We’ve really learned what the digital divide means in the last two years,” Cabot says. “It’s top of mind for everybody.”

Cities today want to leverage smart technology to accomplish other policy goals, such as sustainability, Cabot says. Smart buildings reduce their carbon footprints with solar panels on glass windows to power lights and sensors to adjust energy consumption based on time of day.

Cisco is working with a water district in Boise, Idaho, on a project to conserve water drawn from the Boise River, where recent drought has limited the water supply to farmers, ranchers and communities downriver. A proposed smart sensor network would manage flow rates, potentially saving 20 percent of the region’s water usage, Cabot says.

“You can move water where you need it with a lot of data,” he says.

DIVE DEEPER: Smart city leaders work to break down data silos to improve services.

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