Smart cities: What really makes them smart?
Recently, I had the pleasure of taking part in the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Singapore, where leaders from around the world gathered to discuss the future of mobility. My presentation – Emerging Mobility Solutions and Smart Cities – was among many that explored vital mobility topics, from technology innovation to data management to sustainability to many others. But, by the conference’s end, one burning question had yet to be answered: What makes a smart city – smart?
The big idea:
As the U.S. population grows increasingly urban, city transportation leaders must move quickly to optimize their transport systems so that residents continue to enjoy economic opportunity, security and a high quality of life. These demographic shifts will demand “smart city” strategies, but how can leaders get the process moving? What can they learn from cities that are overcoming inertia or resistance to move into the future with the necessary velocity?
For decades I’ve worked with transportation leaders as they’ve pursued Smart City strategies. No single approach prevails, but there are four keys (all conveniently starting with “P”) among the more successful cities’ efforts:
- Planning – Smart cities don’t happen by accident. It takes intent, diligence and openness to bold new ideas. Take the time to plan well. It will pay dividends at every turn.
- Partnership – This means breaking down siloes between transportation agencies, and cultivating collaboration between them and public- and private-sector experts to ensure an integrated approach. The earlier you initiate these partnerships, the better.
- Policies – Innovation has a way of bumping into policy barriers. You need a strong policy foundation, undergirded by the right organization to move Smart City solutions forward. Policy change takes time, so start early.
- Passion – Sometimes it’s one person, sometimes it’s many – but there’s always a strong leadership force that establishes the vision and drives it forward. Check out San Diego’s 5 Big Moves for a notable example.
The secret sauce:
Mobility is key to urban vitality. It connects people to education, work, sustenance, health care and recreation. It allows freight and people to move more fluidly and, in the case of public transportation, creates equity in opportunities and quality of life. All of these critical social benefits are riding on our ability to meet the challenge of urbanization with smarter, more efficient transportation solutions.
With those imperatives in mind, I offer three bits of advice for those beginning their Smart City evolution:
- Focus on specific needs – Successful cities look at their communities, assess urgent needs, and then address those needs incrementally over time. If residents see that long-stalled transportation issues are resolved – with better, faster, more efficient solutions – they will quickly change from skeptics to true believers in integrated, Smart-City-style innovations. Check out how Jacksonville is dramatically enhancing downtown mobility with its Ultimate Urban Circulator, which will feature autonomous shuttles.
- Work with what you have, the rest will follow – Many cities have neither the technology tools nor the budgets to pursue massive transformative projects. But, they can jumpstart the process by using standard tools, such as traffic management, and finding partners with related goals so that they can pool resources. It’s tempting to stay on pause until robust funding arrives, pointing to the success of Columbus, Ohio, which received a $40 million grant from the national Smart City Challenge. But, leverage is everything: the city’s Smart Columbus program has since garnered more than a half-billion dollars in support from other sources. The lesson: start rolling, rack up successes, and new support will come.
- You need the right people – Smart cities will require innovative and emerging technologies, the right policies and practices, superior data collection and analysis and bold action. And all of those activities will require the right people, with great skills and training, who are working as a unified team toward a shared vision. No barriers can withstand the forces of talent and teamwork.
America’s cities have always been a proving ground for innovation. They will have to play that role with even greater intensity and focus in the years ahead – generating ever-smarter mobility solutions to preserve opportunities and quality of life for more people than ever before.
Jim Barbaresso is senior vice president of intelligent transportation systems at HNTB, an infrastructure advisory firm.