The following is a guest post from Clint Vince, President of Dentons’ US Energy Practice and Co-Chair of Dentons’ Global Energy Sector, and Jennifer Morrissey, Consultant to Dentons’ Energy Practice.
Amid the massive urban growth worldwide, there is a huge hype in town halls, boardrooms, and the media about making cities and communities “smarter”—but the definition of a “smart city” is elusive.
Talks about smart cities often convey complexity, primarily focusing on technology. And while technology is the most important factor for smart cities, it is not an end. Many things can be done in a smart city to improve people’s lives. These include using new technology and making decisions based on data.
The concept of smart cities is relatively simple and elegant. A smart city uses an integrated approach to coordinate all essential services. It modernizes digital, physical, and social infrastructure to make the delivery of city services more efficient, innovative, equitable, connected, safer, sustainable, and exciting. And in an era when two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to migrate to cities in just one generation, the transition to smarter cities and communities couldn’t be more urgent.
More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas. Cities produce 80% of global GDP and produce 70% of CO2 emissions. The projected growth trajectory for urban environments means that cities will face increasing challenges in all aspects of their business operations-including social imbalances, traffic congestion, pollution, and resource strain-if action is not taken.
There are mayors worldwide who think smart technology can help improve the quality of life in cities, which will attract investment and lead to positive growth.
There are many ways to think about a “smart city,” but any project that will be a success will focus on five main areas: backbone infrastructure, leadership structures in cities and communities, sustainable services, new technology, and the social infrastructure of the community.
Grid modernization is the essential platform for smart development
Modernizing “the grid,” which is the backbone of any smart community, will help people connect more.
Grid modernization starts with the electrical system and then with advanced telecommunications, mobility systems, and smart buildings as the essential foundation for the city as a whole. The grid will become the nerve center that powers the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), electric vehicles (EVs), and more.
All of these components become hosts for sensor technologies that allow data collection to support planning, management, and operations in the city or community and privacy and data sharing strategies to be interwoven with the infrastructure as it is upgraded or deployed.
Focusing on network modernization first and then advanced telecommunications and transportation also benefit from known and proven financing models that help a city or community advance its efforts. Other parts of a smart city plan require creative thinking and collaboration between groups that have worked together in the past.
Leadership, policy, and regulation are the drivers of investment and growth.
Courageous leadership, forward-looking policies, and flexible regulatory structures must be developed to develop a truly smart city. To safely, fairly, and cost-effectively scale infrastructure to meet the needs of the future, government officials, policymakers, and leaders of cities and communities must create a new paradigm.
Today, some of the biggest problems are a lack of comprehensive decision-making, problems getting enough money, and different regulatory bodies on issues that need to be dealt with together.
Infrastructure integration must go beyond physical technologies to include the institutional structures that define how the physical structures are established, financed, and managed. City and community leaders, regulators, and planners need to create incentives for businesses of all sizes to invest in implementing and applying advanced technologies while ensuring residents’ trust and safety.
Sustainable services improve the quality of life and reduce financial, health, and safety risks.
Research indicates a strong correlation between the environmental performance of cities and their prosperity. Municipalities need to think about how to be more environmentally friendly and deal with a changing climate in some places.
This requires rapid acceleration towards cleaner, healthier, and more economically viable urban growth through efficiencies, investment in renewable energy technologies, and associated regulatory reform. It also requires greening urban infrastructure, transport, land use, and development policies. Failure to make this shift increases financial, public health, and security risks. Digital security and safety must also be addressed as the risks of cyber intrusion increase as the digital infrastructure grows.
Partnerships with innovation centers ensure the adoption of best technologies and practices.
The concept of “connectedness” goes far beyond sensors and apps. Technology, used properly, can help cities enjoy more of all the things communities value—including parks, neighborhoods, public spaces, and economic opportunities.
The use of advanced technologies does not necessarily mean that everything is new. Advanced analytics can integrate and improve existing systems using data already collected for other purposes, increasing efficiencies and lowering the cost of service delivery. This provides enormous benefits for residents and cities, which often operate with limited budgets.
Smart community leadership will also leverage relationships with innovators—technologists, government labs, universities, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—already working to address the challenges facing cities and communities today and in the future. These entities already serve as a testing ground for technologies, practices, and ideas that can be shared with community leaders, businesses, and residents for the benefit of all.
Attention to the social infrastructure of the community is indispensable.
Cities are primarily focused on people, and smart cities and community programs should aim to improve the lives of city residents. Whether the existing digital and physical infrastructure is being upgraded or modernized, or a new city is being built where there was none before, the purpose of the city is to be a home, workplace, and playground for its residents.
Building broad community support for any smart city or community program is a complex process that requires significant engagement with and collaboration with community anchor institutions and individual stakeholders. People can only make a smart community grow and thrive if they interact with and use the resources and services.
Given the scale of modernization that must occur at the physical, digital, and social levels and the extraordinary pace at which new technology is catching up with social infrastructure, cities, and communities need to “up their game” with a greater sense of focus and urgency. Most are lagging far behind compared to the speed at which urban migration occurs. Most aren’t doing enough to set up government structures that can handle the modernization of urban infrastructure on the whole and integrated level and come up with ways to pay for everything.
Critical projects must be conceived and selected through a rigorous public process. Public-private partnerships and other sources of financing need to be developed quickly. Privacy, data sharing, and other elements of a good social infrastructure must be established at the beginning of the process. And flexibility must be built into the planning structure to accommodate rapid changes in all aspects of the endeavor and technological development.