Most by now have heard the term “smart cities,” but few can understand the concept in concrete terms.

We can point to smart initiatives – all the sensors, the data-crunching analysts behind glowing online dashboards – but when can a city truly consider itself “smart”? As with most things in government, the simple answer is, “it’s complicated.”

Recently Black & Veatch conducted a survey in an attempt to gauge municipal attitudes regarding the smart cities movement. Jennifer James, smart cities solution lead at Black & Veatch, says that the vast majority of municipalities view the smart city movement as important and transformative, but there isn’t a consensus on the concept’s definition.

“Our survey found there isn’t complete alignment on exactly what that definition of ‘smart city’ is,” James says. “What it means is a little different for every city.” What it ultimately comes down to, she explains, is a community, city or region using digital technologies and the data coming from those technologies to plan and operate more effectively. Ultimately though, “it has to come down to making peoples’ lives better,” she says. “[The use of new] technology is the enabler, not the main goal.”

According to the Black & Veatch survey, the smart cities trend is growing. More municipal leaders feel comfortable with the topic from last year, and feel the movement will be impactful, will have long-term effects. The majority also feel it should be driven primarily by city leaders.

There are a few reasons the concept has really taken off in the past few years, according to James. The first is an increase in focus on urban centers. Urbanization has been dramatically increasing across the country, and many challenges come with that.

“The challenges are there, but as technology has emerged and gotten to the point where we can have machines talking to machines and affordable sensors and affordable cloud-based storage systems,” James says. “All of these things now are at the point where they are affordable enough and powerful enough for cities to make use of them in an effective way.”

The survey revealed several key drivers of smart innovation, James says. The first is improving efficiencies and cutting operating costs. The second is improving the quality of municipal services and the satisfaction of residents and the third is to improve environmental and resource sustainability. All of these drivers, James says, have to do with the intersection of traditional municipal problems and the proliferation of affordable technological solutions.

The meeting of old problems and new tech tools begins to uncover what it means to be a smart city. However, by looking at various unique smart projects from across the country, a clearer picture of what it means for a city to be truly smart, and how the concept is permeating all aspects of urban life, starts to emerge.

Longmont, Colo.: Building the smart backbone

The small, unassuming town of Longmont, Colo., has something exciting brewing just beneath the surface. The city is in the process of connecting a fiber-optic network to every residence and business within its limits. Offering incredible Internet speeds, city officials hope the network will be the starting point of Longmont’s smart transformation.

Matt Scheppers, director of electric and broadband operations for the city, says the vision of the fiber-optic system started back in 1997 when fiber was laid to connect all the city’s electrical substations. Initiatives to build out the system to every residential and commercial property were met with mixed responses, policy problems and a failed public-private partnership; however, after being passed over for Google Fiber, the city gained a renewed interest.

“Even though Google didn’t pick us, [we told the city council] it really shouldn’t stop us from doing this project,” Scheppers says. “If we’re truly interested in this project, we should take it to the voters.”

The people spoke, a bond measure was issued in 2014, and the city began laying cable. Right now, at two and a half years into the build, the system is about 60 percent complete. Scheppers says the network will be fully built out in mid-2017 and offered as a service to all residents.

“We said ‘Hey, if the private sector isn’t going to step up, let’s do it ourselves,”’ Scheppers says. “It provides us an incredible amount of bandwidth and high-speed Internet connectivity, and it will hopefully spark that kind of development and economy that comes with being a connected community on this level.”

The network, he says, will be a game-changer for the city in many regards, and they’ve already seen returns on the investment. When the original system was first constructed in 1997 to simply connect the electric substations, the city found itself able to collect tremendous amounts of data. Scheppers says at the time they weren’t even sure what they were looking for in those numbers, but by collecting and analyzing them, they were able to make reliability improvements through preventative maintenance they were previously unable to perform.

Scheppers hopes that when the network comes fully online, it will facilitate these types of improvements citywide. Data from the power grid, from the traffic system and even from real-time video collected throughout the city can be transferred and analyzed at lightning speeds, with no meaningful upper limit to how much data can be transported.

“We’re really excited to see where people take it,” Scheppers says, who views the network as a stage for any number of smart initiatives. Because of Longmont’s newfound robust connectivity, the possibilities for the city have increased exponentially.

Once the capacity is there, though, what does real-time data analytics allow?

San Antonio, Texas: Smart signaling for efficiency

Traffic is a problem every city must deal with in its own way, and San Antonio, Texas, is taking a smart approach. The city is currently working to connect all 1,400 of its signalized intersections with one another to gather real-time data to understand traffic patterns and volumes with the ultimate goal of alleviating congestion and eliminating gridlock.

Marc Jacobson, San Antonio’s traffic management center manager, says there are two benefits of this scope of data collection. The first is the ability to understand and respond to traffic flows and incidents as they are happening, and the second is the ability to understand changes in traffic flows over time.

“On the real-time side, we’re able to look at the arrivals of vehicles at a signalized intersection,” Jacobson says. “We can marry that to what the traffic signal is showing those vehicles. Ultimately we want to maximize the number of vehicles arriving while the signal is green.” This reduces the number of stops and starts drivers have to make, which in turn decreases traffic and reduces carbon emissions in the city.

“Additionally, we can get alerts from our system if we see things that are outside the normal pattern,” Jacobson says. If large numbers of drivers divert to a route they weren’t expecting, it can be indicative of an accident or other incident, and the city can respond accordingly.

When the data is aggregated and analyzed over longer time frames, Jacobson says it can help engineers understand growth patterns within the city, and how traffic patterns are evolving over time. These natural evolutions create the need for signal re-timing, Jacobson says. With this historical data in hand, this re-timing is more accurate and accomplished in a more timely fashion.

The project is currently in its infancy, Jacobson says, but over the course of the next few years, he feels that the system will enable the city to react to subtle changes in order to maintain the reliability of ride times. He envisions partnering with third-party vendors to get real-time data to motorists so they can make smarter decisions.

It’s this ability of data to inform residents’ decisions and impact their overall quality of life, Jacobson says, that truly makes a city smart. However, all this data means nothing if a city doesn’t have the personnel to interpret it.

Seattle, Wash.: The new data scientists

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is pushing hard for the city to become more data-driven. According to city materials, the urban area has grown by 70,000 people in the past five years, and it’s expected to grow by 120,000 more by 2035. The city’s workforce isn’t likely to keep up that same growth rate, so it needs to be smarter in the way it delivers services.

Michael Mattmiller, Seattle’s chief technology officer, says that simply put, the city is looking to utilize low-cost sensors and big data to help improve the quality of life for all residents. Implicit in that, however, is the idea that these tools are expanding the scope of what government departments are able to do with their existing manpower.

One example of this, Mattmiller says, is the city’s RainWatch program. The Pacific Northwest is known for its high levels of precipitation, and the city itself has issues with flash floods during rainstorms, which result in public safety hazards and liability claims against the city.

“What we did was partner with the University of Washington to study our built environment and deploy a network of rain gauge sensors around the city,” Mattmiller says. “What we learned is that we have microclimates – when rain hits, especially unexpectedly, we now understand there are parts of the city which are more impacted than others.”

Through a partnership with the National Weather Service, Seattle is now able to issue hyper-local weather predictions to generate a safety alert an hour before rainfall, and take steps to prevent dangerous situations and damage to property. “The result has been a decrease in insurance claims, better protection of our infrastructure and better service to our public,” Matmiller says.

One interesting aspect of the Smart Cities movement, according to Mattmiller, is that it’s requiring government workers to quickly learn new skill sets and shift roles. Individuals who may not be familiar with these high-tech tools are suddenly being asked to act as data scientists. Recognizing this, the city has started training its employees differently.

“Last year, we held our first ever data camp,” Mattmiller says. “We had a three-day workshop and ran through a series of panels, guest speakers and training to expose [workers] to what data-driven tooling, analytics and decision-making looks like.” About 50 mid-level managers at the city were in attendance.

Additionally, to facilitate more data-driven solutions, in April the city consolidated its 650 technology professionals into one centralized technology department with the goal of being able to provide strategic support to all departments.

In the future, Mattmiller says an intimate familiarity with data will become increasingly important for all city workers. “Data is becoming critical in how we’re operating the city,” he says.

This number-crunching is essential now, but in the future, what if the networks themselves did the thinking for us?

Redwood City, Calif.: Buildings that think

Redwood City, Calif., had a parking problem. More accurately, they had a perceived parking problem. Aaron Aknin, assistant city manager and community development director, says residents felt the city had inadequate parking infrastructure to meet their needs. “We have a lot of downtown parking assets,” Aknin says, “We have thousands of spaces around the downtown area, but people were really only using the spaces they could see.” It got to the point where residents were requesting the city build an additional parking garage – a project which would likely cost millions.

Rather than build new, Aknin says the city wanted to make existing resources more visible. “The next logical step would be to start to use our parking more efficiently,” he says, “and we thought the best way to do that is to get real-time information into the hands of drivers.”

To provide this data, the city installed metering infrastructure in its two main parking garages and built large signs in front displaying exactly how many spots are currently available. “Since putting those signs up, we’ve seen a drop in the number of complaints [regarding inadequate parking,]” says Aknin. “We’ve also begun to see an incremental trend towards the garages being more well-utilized.”

By getting real-time data into the hands of residents, the city was able to save a significant amount of money and re-energize underused resources. However, the story doesn’t end there. Redwood City’s smart parking solution uses a cutting-edge type of computing that is reshaping the way smart buildings “think.”

Tarik Hammadou, the CEO of VIMOC Technologies, the vendor chosen to install the system, says that traditional “smart” buildings aren’t actually very smart. “When you look today at asset and infrastructure management systems, they rely on connectivity and cloud computing,” he says. “In this topology, you have a single point of failure and a lack of scalability. There is a need to build smarter infrastructure by expanding cloud computing to the edge of the infrastructure itself.”

This means when smart building systems are gathering data, they need to think for themselves. They need artificial intelligence. In the case of Redwood City, the system mimics the human neuron. It can classify data and identify patterns. “In this specific case, we trained the network to actually detect vehicles in a highly accurate way,” Hammadou says, “All of the aggregation, all of the computing is done at the edge of the network. In that way, it’s intelligence, not data.”

Hammadou stresses the importance of these types of systems in the future of smart buildings. “IF the data you gather isn’t accurate,” he says, “you have nothing.”

This trend of smart systems are being added to legacy infrastructure is occurring all over the country, but what if there were a way to plan a smart city from the beginning?

Fort Worth, Texas: Smart people create smart cities

The Walsh Project is a planned community in the Fort Worth, Texas, area currently being built with smart development in mind. When it is complete, it will have a 2-gigabit fiber-optic backbone that will connect over 15,000 single-family homes as well as businesses. However, the network isn’t the entire picture. The Walsh Project is an experiment in smart community building.

“The Walsh Project is 7,200 acres located… 10 minutes west of downtown Fort Worth,” says Tony Ruggeri, Co-CEO of Republic Property Group, the development firm selected for the build out. “We’re essentially building a small town. There will be about 50,000 people living here at build out, and the time horizon to do such is around 40 or 50 years.”

Because of this timeframe, Ruggeri says, they want to be very careful in the planning phases. This isn’t a neighborhood with 10 cul-de-sacs; his firm is essentially building a city. “We’re asking ourselves ‘If you were developing a city from scratch, what would you do and how would you do it?’”

One of the first things was to treat Internet connectivity as the fourth utility, on par with water, gas and electricity in priority. However, to Ruggeri, the high-speed connection isn’t the only thing that will make this community smart. It’s more of a demonstration of the community’s priorities. To Ruggeri, it’s a communities’ people that make it smart. That’s why he wants Walsh’s children to grow up in a highly connected, highly technological space.

Using the idea of an Imagination Playground, which are essentially large, interconnecting building blocks that stimulate imaginative play, the children of Walsh will be interacting with the real world and the tech world simultaneously. “Rather than just swinging on the swings, kids can work together to build things; they can make things,” Ruggeri says. “We had a former Surgeon General talk to us, and he spoke about the importance of neuroplasticity in children, as well as engaging all of their senses.” The Imagination Playground satisfies these needs.

Interactivity will also be an important part of the Walsh playground. “One of the things we’re pulling into the playground is sound,” Ruggeri says. “We’re building interactive playgrounds that turn into musical instruments… you can turn the entire playground, through sensors, into a symphony.” He explains that if a child slides down a slide in a certain way, it can sound like a piano. If they tap on a specific part of the jungle gym, it will sound like drums. In this way, technology and the real world meld.

However, in this smart community, tech is not at the forefront. The technological tools are fading into the background, Ruggeri says. What’s more important is the cultivation of what he calls a “hybrid mind.” “We want our kids to go out and have unstructured play, but we also want them to be able to code. We’re trying to blend this, so our children have good critical thinking skills and understand the world around them, but they can also understand technology. We’re looking for touchpoints where those two things intersect.”

So what makes one city smarter than another? According to Black & Veatch’s James, it’s not the proliferation of technology, but how that technology is used to enrich the lives of residents. “It’s not just about the technology that’s deployed, it really comes down to how well the city’s goals are achieved. How a city achieves its goals is a function of the technology that’s in place, but it’s also a function of the approach and the people.”

There has been a measurable shift in the attitudes municipal leaders are taking in regards to smart cities. In years past, cities focused solely on the technology, James explains. Now, the attitude has become more resident-centric. If people aren’t at the center of a smart initiative, it runs the risk of being under utilized, as it is technology simply for technology’s sake.

“It’s this combination [of people and technology],” James says, “that’s needed for a city to really be considered “smart.”

American City & County, by Derek Prall | February 15, 2017 | Original article here