For the first time a majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Increased urbanization brings new demands for technology to make city life more pleasant, healthy, and efficient. New low-cost sensors and advanced data analytics, among other technologies, have given rise to smart cities across the United States. However, many cities are struggling with how to best select, deploy, and maintain smart city technologies. In its recent report, the Center for Data Innovation (CDI) said that national governments have an important role to play in accelerating and coordinating smart city development.

“Cities will rightly make the majority of investments and decisions related to their evolution into smart cities,” the report said. “However national governments have a key role to fill in addressing the problems cities cannot resolve on their own, particularly in the early stages. While national governments should always be involved in supporting innovation, their main goal with smart cities is to enact policies that set in motion significant shifts in how cities operate that will allow this evolution to be self-sustaining.”

The CDI identified five challenges that are limiting smart city development that cities cannot overcome on their own, as well as the role the Federal government can play in solving the problem.

Cities governments are risk adverse and serving as early adopters for smart city technologies introduces risk. Many cities prefer a wait-and-see approach and want to implement proven solutions. The CDI pointed out that while cities should be investing in research and development (R&D) for new technologies, cities should not be expected to take the full brunt of the costs for only a small share of the benefits the technology will generate. The United States has made significant investments in smart city technologies, including $160 million in funding for the Smart Cities Initiative. The report encouraged the government to continue the investment and fund research and demonstration projects that develop and test smart city applications. Additionally, the CDI suggested partnering with cities to develop shared apps and tools to make cities better equipped to work with smart technology and data.

The CDI argued that infrastructure investment on the national-level is largely focused on “concrete and steel” infrastructure projects. This spending leaves little room for more tech-focused cities, which rely on national infrastructure investment, to pursue smart infrastructure built around “concrete and chips.” The report suggests the Federal government shift additional spending to focus specifically on digital infrastructure.

Right now smart cities are not digitally connected to each other. “If cities can share data with one another, governments can analyze larger pools of data, enabling more accurate and actionable insights,” the report said. However, cities don’t have interconnected systems that allow data sharing and easy communication. The Federal government can play a large role in addressing this problem with common tools, technologies, policies, and standards for collecting, storing, and analyzing smart city data. The government can also implement an incentives program that rewards cities for adopting the common standards and sharing data and software tools with each other, the CDI suggested.

The growth of smart city technologies and the focus on data driven decision making is a significant departure from how cities used to operate, and cities are struggling to keep up. Cities need ways to learn and to easily share their success and failures with other cities. Again, the government can encourage knowledge sharing through the development and adoption of smart city performance metrics that allow Federal, state, and local governments to compare performance using common criteria. This will “foster collaboration and coordination in the smart city ecosystem to facilitate inter-city learning and reduce knowledge sharing barriers impeding the growth of smart cities,” according to CDI.

The digital divide is a growing problem for most cities. While wealthy residents are often enjoying greater technology access, disadvantaged communities are left behind. This concern exists for smart technologies as well, with cities not deploying smart city technologies in an equitable fashion. The Federal government can ensure that its smart city funding prioritizes the needs of undeserved communities. That can happen by ensuring that no population is excluded from smart city data collection, collecting statistical data about smart city deployment, and developing educational materials to help cities assess and address equity issues. Additionally, when funding programs that address the needs of under-served communities, the Federal government can emphasize the use of smart technology.

To read the full report, click here.

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