Smart cities or intelligent cities are not only about technology improving city services, but they are about improving the community experience as you live, work, and play. Yes, much has changed over the past 18 months, but city projects are moving forward and with a boost of energy because of the pandemic and new funding sources. The industry as a whole is finding new project opportunities centered around automation, remote operations, contactless services, public health and safety, and new ways to deliver legacy services to avoid the face-to-face interaction for safety purposes. A few key technologies directly aiding in smart city initiatives include Internet of Things (sensors, connecting assets, tracking assets, real-time alerting or intelligence), mobile applications, augmented or virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.
Historically, smart city projects have centered around traffic management, smart lighting, and city asset management, and while those areas are expected to continue to be areas of focus, new use cases are coming into the mix. Under the American Rescue Plan and Coronavirus Relief Fund (CARES ACT), cities and public schools are receiving emergency funding to support in projects related to safety, healthcare, and administering city services in new and safe ways. These emergency funds do come with requirements to aid or support in economic recovery, a focus on essential services and workers, response to the pandemic and public health, and investments in infrastructure related projects including water, sewer, and broadband access. Other spending priorities include rent relief, salary relief, and community development. As a consultant and advisor to technology vendors (IoT, Wireless, other), a focus on projects around revitalization, infrastructure improvements, emergency response, utilities, capital related projects, and parks/recreation may be new avenues for smart city projects over the next few years.
In addition to the CARES ACT, the next boost of funding includes funds from the Federal Infrastructure bill. In early August, this $1 trillion bill passed the Senate and is awaiting approval by the House. While some of these funds will be allocated to federal infrastructure projects, a bulk of the funds flow to states and cities and more specifically will focus around roads, bridges, railroads, utilities, broadband, public transportation and energy. Outside of the general infrastructure areas, other funding allocations will be targeted around cybersecurity, climate change and sustainability, and electric vehicles and charging. According to Smart Cities Dive, “The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed … could offer cities new opportunities for technology and mobility funding, including a grant program for smart cities technology.”
Cities will continue to adjust, rethink, and shift priorities to meet the demands of their community, services, and infrastructure. Cities are also getting really creative, along with setting up public-private partnerships (PPP) for smart city projects working directly with technology companies. Also interesting, some of these smart city projects are not about making money or saving money, but are zero funded projects, meaning there is no exchange of money. Cities may provide access to a vendor for infrastructure improvements (right of way access, cell tower installation, Wi-Fi installation, other), and in return that vendor may offer citizens free services and some pay-for services and the city may benefit from all of this because their citizens have an improved experience (i.e. broadband, Wi-Fi access, mobile app, online payment system). The other ways cities are getting creative is to host or participate in innovation and smart city tech testing centers (see Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners, see MIT Senseable City Lab), where vendors come and showcase their solutions and the city may adopt them or scale them if they prove to improve efficiencies, improve safety, reduce maintenance, etc. (many other use cases). All in all, these solutions must directly improve city services and positively impact the city and its community.
A few final notes…keep a look out for projects tied to sustainability, green initiatives, and electrification, as cities open up funding to those types of projects that tie to their city plan. These may include things like improving infrastructure for electric cars (i.e. EV charging stations), autonomous vehicles, solar/wind power, recycling or upcycling, reducing carbon emissions and pollution, and leveraging city technology for more citizen facing services and city experiences. In addition, for cities that thrive on hospitality and tourism, funding will support key initiatives to help boost these experiences as they have been hit hard due to the pandemic and funding may be allocated directly to making up for this loss of revenue or revitalizing these services.