A decade of smart city projects: What worked and what didn't

Cities have learned that residents offer an important real-world reality check on tech-centric and data-driven work.

How Memphis is utilizing fiber and the cloud to become a smarter city From owning its own fiber to smart hiring practices and harnessing the cloud, the city of Memphis is moving through a digital transformation.

The idea of smart cities was not on anyone's radar back in 2005, but New Orleans got a head start on data-driven decision making thanks to Hurricane Katrina. 

After Katrina hit and the city's levees failed, the city started using data to improve and speed-up decision making to support the city's recovery.

Amsterdam was another early adopter with the Amsterdam Smart Cities Initiative in 2009. The team used data to address depression and increase treatment for people who were not getting help. By combining statistics from insurance companies and information about the cost of treatment for depression, the project team found hot spots in the city where people with depression were not receiving appropriate care.

Steph Stoppenhagen, director of smart cities business development solutions at Black & Veatch, said that public private partnerships (P3s) are an effective way to make smart city projects successful.

"That's where you create those P3s to build a consortium and do this project that way," she said.

Stoppenhagen said that smart campuses are a growing trend in P3 smart city projects. Sprint recently announced a smart campus project with Arizona State University to take advantage of 5G service. Sprint is working with the university and the Greater Phoenix Smart Region Consortium to create a Sprint 5G incubator at ASU's Novus Innovation Corridor and conduct joint research and development. 

SEE: Smart cities: A business leader's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

This look back at smart city projects over the last decade highlights what worked and what didn't.

Successful smart city work

There are many ways to measure what makes a city smart.

IDC is taking nominations for its second annual Smart Cities awards program with 12 categories. In the first round of awards, Albany, NY, won the smart water category and NYCx Co-Labs in Brownsville, Brooklyn, won for digital equity and accessibility.

Easy Park's second Smart Cities Index scored 500 cities across 24 criteria that cover everything from recycling to blockchain. Vienna won a 10 for trash management and San Francisco got the top mark for blockchain.

In 2017, the What Works Cities division of Bloomberg Philanthropies launched a certification process to evaluate how well cities use data to improve the quality of life for residents. So far, 13 cities have won a gold or a silver certification with two honorable mentions:

  • Arlington, TX - Silver in 2019
  • Boston, MA - Silver in 2018
  • Kansas City, MO - Gold in 2019 and Silver in 2018
  • Los Angeles - Gold in 2018
  • Louisville, KY - Gold in 2019 and Silver in 2018
  • Memphis, TN - Silver in 2019
  • New Orleans, LA - Silver in 2018
  • Philadelphia, PA - Silver in 2019
  • San Diego, CA - Silver in 2018
  • San Francisco, CA - Silver in 2018
  • Scottsdale, AZ - Silverin 2019
  • Seattle, WA - Silver in 2018
  • Washington, DC - Gold in 2019 and Silver in 2018

The certification review process has 45 criteria in eight categories:

  • Data Governance
  • Evaluations
  • General Management
  • Open Data
  • Performance & Analytics
  • Repurposing
  • Results-Driven Contracting
  • Stakeholder Engagement

Louisville won for building an open-source, cloud-based system Waze Analytics Relational-database Platform (Waze WARP). The platform uses WAZE data, collision reports, and built-environment data to conduct real-time traffic studies. More than 900 government entities are now using this platform to run both historic and real-time querying and analysis to improve mobility, pedestrian and bike safety, road conditions, and emergency response.

Washington, DC's Right Care, Right Now pilot project was designed to route 911 callers to the right kind of help. Operators now transfers callers with non-life-threatening conditions to an EMS-trained nurse, who determines the most appropriate services. The nurse can schedule a same-day appointment at an urgent or primary care facility and coordinates transportation through Lyft.

Earlier this year, Kansas City passed an ordinance to ensure its commitment to data-driven governance and protect the city's priorities around transparency. One challenge for smart city work is ensuring that data transparency and access survives the transition to a new mayor. 

SEE: More Decade in Review coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

Low points 

American cities faced unintended consequence as a result of one data-driven idea. To improve public transportation in low-income communities, cities started building apartments and condos near transit stops to accomplish this. 

Instead of expanding educational and employment opportunities, these developments encouraged gentrification and pushed out the same people the project was designed to help. These new developments often raised rents in poor neighborhoods and priced out the people the transit expansions were meant to serve.

The San Diego Union Tribune studied the developments in four California cities where about 400 multifamily buildings were completed or under construction within a half mile of a transit stop. 

In neighborhoods where most families made less than $64,000 a year, the newspaper analysis found that monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was more than $3,500. In some areas where median household income was less than $30,000, the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment is still more than $3,300.

SEE: Decade in tech: What stood out or fell flat in the 2010s (ZDNet)

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs led one of the biggest smart city fails in the last decade with Sidewalk Toronto. After several years of discussions, Google released ambitious plans in June 2019 to build residential, retail, and office buildings on Toronto's waterfront.

The project included public Wi-Fi, in addition to other sensors to collect "urban data" to better inform housing and traffic decisions. By October, Sidewalk Toronto leaders had scaled back their plans due to complaints and questions from residents.

Stoppenhagen said the Sidewalks team had great intentions in Toronto but they didn't have residents and neighborhood organizations at the table.

"This has a bunch of us learning a lot of lessons out there of always bringing the community to the table to make sure they are aligned with the plan so it doesn't all blow up in smoke," she said.

Stoppenhagen added that one of the biggest challenges that cities face is addressing privacy concerns.

"We need a better educational plan to explain why we want to use this data and how that will affect someone in the future to their advantage," she said. "We need to show some use cases back to the public."

Community engagement is critical

Bas Boorsma, vice president at Cities Today Institute, has a list of 10 why reasons smart cities projects fail and technology myopia and solutionism are at the top of the list. City leaders fall into these traps when the goal is to implement a new technology instead of using tech to solve a city problem. 

This mistake is often a result of a related problem—not talking to residents who are most interested in quality of life issues, like access to an internet connection and potholes. Stoppenhagen said this is the frame of reference she uses for smart city projects.

"When I think smart cities, it means more time back to that citizen, how can we be more efficient and give someone back more time?" she said.

SEE: Decade in Review 2010 - 2019 (CNET)

In a column about smart city projects, Kendra L. Smith, the associate director of community engagement in the Center for Population Health Sciences at Stanford University, said smart cities leaders must embrace non-digital issues such as "legacy governance, social justice, politics, ideology, privacy and financial elements that are not so smart, efficient or resilient when smart-city planning starts."

Smith wrote that to succeed and be relevant to residents, city leaders must answer these questions about smart city projects:

  1. Who decides what the city really needs and will operate going forward?
  2. What does it really cost to develop a smart city?
  3. How will a smart city affect social justice in my city?

The key is to make sure digital goals can withstand the real-world reality check from residents and long-standing city operations.

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Image: metamorworks, Getty Images/iStockphoto