Apr 07 2022

NIST Aims to Help Cities Assess How ‘Smart’ They Are

The National Institute of Standards and Technology offers a guide to a holistic assessment of smart city effectiveness.

Cities across the country have been working diligently over the last half-dozen years or more to brand themselves “smart cities” by deploying streetlights with sensors, connected traffic intersections, sensors for flood monitoring and more.

But how does a city know how smart it actually is? The National Institute of Standards and Technology has some helpful advice.

NIST, an arm of the Commerce Department, recently released a guide to help city leaders assess the impact of their smart city initiatives. As NIST explains in a blog post about the guide, smart cities often use key performance indicators to evaluate their projects, but those are often technology-driven or sector specific. This limits their ability to “measure benefits essential to assessing community impact and return on investment.”

To address this, NIST created what it calls a Holistic Key Performance Indicators (H-KPI) Framework to comprehensively examine smart city efforts to consider unique factors. Those might include “varying districts and neighborhoods, differences in population and economic scale, the reuse of previously deployed technologies and other factors relevant to a city or community.”

In the guide, NIST defines the “smart” part of smart cities as being “the efficient use of digital technologies to provide prioritized services and benefits to meet community goals, such as economic vitality, equity, resilience, sustainability or quality of life.”

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Smart Cities Get a New Way to Measure Transformation

The H-KPI framework uses several metrics to evaluate smart cities. These include alignment of community priorities across elements, investment alignment with community priorities, investment efficiency, information flow density, and quality of infrastructure services and community benefits.

NIST says the framework “provides the basis for developing measurement methods and tools that allow for integration, adaptability, and extensibility at three interacting levels of analysis: technologies, infrastructure services, and community benefits.”

David Wollman, deputy chief of smart connected systems in NIST's Communications Technology Laboratory, tells Smart Cities Dive that the goal of the agency’s framework is to give smart cities a standardized way to measure effectiveness.

Smart cities have typically measured the effectiveness of deployments based on the technology or service itself, according to NIST.

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“For example, if a city deploys smart street lighting technology and traffic monitoring systems, associated metrics might include energy cost savings and congestion reduction,” the NIST guide notes. “However, these direct-results metrics do not capture indirect benefits such as reductions in accidents and crime that make communities and inhabitants feel safer.”

In other cases, cities will look at metrics for utility cost savings after they roll out smart meters  and will not “measure the benefits of increased engagement of citizens in sustainability initiatives resulting from increased awareness of their own energy consumption patterns.”

“Because there is often not a reliable and objective way to self-assess the level of success or impact that technologies have on inhabitants, technology deployments in smart cities are often limited to vertical applications and use cases with specific goals, rather than city-wide transformational goals,” NIST notes.

The H-KPI methodology includes strategic planning, systems design and assurance, and operations management, NIST notes.

Wollman contends NIST’s holistic view of measuring smart cities is critical because smart cities have “interconnected infrastructures that support citizen goals and services, and better understanding those interconnections leads to progress.”

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