The problem with most 'Smart City' projects is they're vitamins instead of painkillers

There's a reason why smart cities are having a hard time living up to the promise to make communities better connected and governments more automated.

How to lay the foundation for becoming a smart city

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ted Smith is the former chief innovation officer of the city of Louisville, KY, and one of the first chief innovation officers of a US city. He's also former vice president and general manager of TechRepublic.

In this new century, the places we live and work and the transportation we use to move between them get smarter every day thanks to a host of innovations that have combined the Internet of Things (IoT) and the rising tide of expectations for safety, security, and convenience.

There is no place these forces have combined more confusingly than in the quest for the "smart city."

For most of us that lived through the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 waves of technology innovation, we know that change is coming and that our smart home technology and our driverless cars are all attached most often to cities.

No one does a better job promoting the smart city vision than the technology vendor community. In 2012, Louisville was selected by IBM as a Smarter Cities Challenge winner for our work in real time asthma monitoring. Part of the award and recognition was a proposal for how we might add a wide range of new sensors and data integration strategies in the coming years.

A few years later, and again in 2017 as reported by TechRepublic, Louisville won an award from Amazon Web Services (AWS) for its City in a Cloud competition, which granted the winner--you guessed it--credits for AWS services to help the city pilot some new kinds of real-time data projects in traffic management.

SEE: Smart cities: A cheat sheet

No one is shocked that the technology industry is helping leaders see the future. This is how it has always been in enterprise technology, but now the enterprise is the city or the state or the country itself.

This time we are going beyond whether the city permit can be filed electronically or if the mayor is active on social media or whether crime data is machine-readable. This time, the entire infrastructure of the city is in play, and the truly big visions are often so expensive to contemplate that, in the US, we typically look to the federal government for seed money.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the rise of smart cities, volume 3 (Tech Pro Research)

In fact 76 cities spent long hours putting together their "pitch" for the US DOT Smart City Challenge in 2016. The scale of these transformations to become "smarter" is very typically millions to tens of millions of dollars. A completely smart city--if you add up all the possible things that can be attached to the internet from public safety, to health, to transit, to water, to lighting, to environmental monitoring, to smart roads--is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

There is a great phrase attributed to the venture capital industry: "Go big or go home." There is certainly some truth to the logic that a city is a big place with a lot going on and a single point solution is probably a missed opportunity to do something better if the whole system were on the table.

If cities are going to be pitching ideas to federal agencies and vendors are going to be pitching ideas to cities and the trade media is going to cover the race, let's consider what is worth pitching.

Many years ago, venture capitalist Kevin Fong introduced the early stage investment community to the idea that there are fundamentally two kinds of offerings worth investing in:

  1. Ones that function like vitamins
  2. Ones that are painkillers

Later, another VC, Sarah Tavel, refined that notion to include a new category the "drug." A vitamin is a solution for a problem the customer does not know they have. It is a "nice to have" solution the customer needs to be convinced that things will be better if they take the vitamin.

The longest list on every city mayor's desk is nothing but vitamins. This is not to say that vitamins are not good--quite the contrary, they are very good for you, but they are nearly impossible to sell or invest in if there is a pain problem or even the possibility of a magic pill solution.

Louisville aerial photo by Jason Hiner

Louisville, KY has been one of the leaders in the "Smart City" movement.

Image: Jason Hiner

Many smart city plans sell a vision of improved mobility, improved electricity and water efficiency, and citizen conveniences like public Wi-Fi and environmental data. The good news for plans like these is that government agencies and voting citizens are not sophisticated investors.

SEE: Smart cities: 6 essential technologies

The next category is painkillers. These are "must-haves" and if your community is in pain, it will prioritize relief above all else. A great example of this is gunshot detection. The tragic rise in gun homicides in most US cities has put many elected officials on the path to anything that can help.

One proven IoT solution vetted for years by the military is the detection and triangulation of gunfire. If you want to reduce gun homicide, the theory goes, then find the people who are shooting as soon as possible. Public safety is full of painkillers. Video surveillance, smart lighting, and many drone applications are pitched and funded as painkillers. Unlike vitamins, once a city starts using them, they will be hooked.

Last is the "drug," which to quote Sarah:

At the core, drugs are vitamins with product-market fit. Drugs pass Sean Ellis's product-market fit question, "how disappointed would you feel if you could no longer use this product?" with flying colors.

In most US cities, smart city drugs take the citizen, visitor, or employer experience to the next level. Cost-effective, ultra high-speed internet is one such drug. Arguably it was the first smart city drug sold by Chattanooga, TN and then made famous by Google Fiber. Visit a city with blazing-fast, affordable internet, and you'll go home with tales reminiscent of 19th century safari expeditions.

Getting a piece of the driverless car pie is seen by many public officials as turf for game-winning cities. That could be the next drug. Economic development has always had an addictive quality as well, as recently evidenced from the hundreds of cities, counties, and regions that tripped over themselves to paint tech-progressive visions of themselves to Amazon to be their home for HQ2.

As taxpayers, we will probably be lousy VCs and will struggle to make sense of the excitement. As technologists, we may have the responsibility to make sure these ideas have the right mix of vitamins, pain relievers, and drugs to bring us cities that improve us all.

Ultimately, we want our cities to be aware of problems, and we want them to predict and prevent the pain. How close are today's smart city technologies to helping us do that? There are still plenty of vitamins to go around, and not quite enough painkillers.

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