The smart cities challenge: How tech will update antiquated infrastructures

A CES 2020 panel discussed how blending new tech into established, sometimes crumbling infrastructures, offers renewable solutions.

A peek at Neon, the artificial humanoid created by Samsung The biggest crowds at CES 2020 were at the Neon booth to check out the new project from Star Labs. The humanoid AI bot is meant to serve as a companion if you need a friend.

The challenge city officials face with aging infrastructures--think crumbling streets, sewers, and subways--and how they are using smart city solutions to repurpose those existing infrastructures was the focus of the "Blending New Tech and Aging Infrastructure in Smart Cities" CES 2020 panel discussion.

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Finding funding

The major problem with cities across the country, said George Karayannis, executive director, Panasonic, "is that every city, none have any money, and they all have infrastructures that need updating or replacing. There's an acute need for private and public partnerships, working together."
 
"City leadership," added Suzanne Murtha, vice president connected and automated technologies at AECOM "needs to form a smart city department," noting that there is a fundamental problem with the (typical city) departments of education, water, sanitation, and transportation. 

Pooling resources

"Each of those departments have different funding streams; they don't pull together," and it becomes a bigger problem, but "looking forward, we need to find a way for them to all come together to fund across all of the departments." Murtha stressed road and bridge tolls and fees for revenue streams. 

City streets

Whether revenue or renovation, smart cities start on the streets, combining safety with efficiency, and through connectivity via traffic signals and intersections, and, of course, the automated automobile. 
 
Murtha, and Karen Lightman (executive director Metro 21- Smart Cities Institute Carnegie Mellon University) want to make it perfectly clear. "It's been driving me nuts," says Lightman of CES chit chat. The AI technology associated with "self-driving" cars is automated, not "autonomous." Murtha explains autonomous means being able to fully function independently.  Automated, on the other hand, refers to something that uses a machine to do the work of a human, hence, it should be referenced as--at least for the next 30-ish years, added Karayannis--an automated and not an autonomous vehicle. 
 
Automated vehicles are probably the most consumer friendly or appealing in selling the idea of smart cities to the masses. "Automated tech vehicles and transport," Murtha said "are a huge part of a connected city." She cited an example of a city that pooled the funds of 13 transit agency clients for 7500 city buses for "electrification, for cleaner air and safe movement."
 
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City systems

Yes, we have to think of transportation, Lightman agreed, but in considering smart cities, we need to "look holistically as a system of a system," one that includes issues of "climate change and the critical thread of citizen engagement which runs through it." 

In terms of transportation initiatives , "Yes, we have to think of transportation," Lightman said, but for smart cities to operate optimally, she continued, we need to "look holistically as a system of a system," one that includes issues of "climate change and the critical thread of citizen engagement which runs through it."  

She cited an example in her home state: 16 years ago, Pittsburgh went bankrupt and lost half of its population. Now stable and growing its a city poised to become an ideal smart city (Lightman acknowledges that losing half the population put considerably less stress the city's infrastructure). Carnegie Mellon , she said, is looking to address issues with "the infrastructure that's been neglected for almost 20 years; there are a lot of bridges and roads crumbling, and we have 40 active landslides." 
 
This is where emerging technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning shines. Lightman stressed how important artificial intelligence (AI) is in predicting natural disasters such as landslides. "AI," she said, "will solve many problems."

5G

5G's connectivity is instrumental to support a city's renewal efforts. However, full 5G support isn't expected for three to five years, which creates a problem in mandating and operating a smart city, starting with intersections and traffic signals. 
 
But that three to five years represents something even more serious, Murtha said. A conservative estimate puts car accidents at 30k nationally; 5G and smart city tech can potentially greatly reduce that number.  "Five years is a huge policy problem to make on the impact, on fatalities, on mandates; it's "highly quantifiable," she said. 
 
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Curbside value

Both Lightman and Murtha discussed the inherent value of the use of the curb, with the latter citing Los Angeles' Flex Curb. Lightman noted, "It's like creating an almost AirBnB for the curb. It's the thoughtful use of food trucks or food cars, Uber and Lyft," and added that using the curb could help pedestrian flow and safety through technology. 
 
Further, Murtha felt that the curb could be another use of the charge system (I.e. pay to "use" the curb). 
 
Karayannis also spoke on the value of the curb, a "public right of way" ready for exploitation, and agrees with the notion of "renting curbside."

Smart city successes

"We've had pockets of success in different locations," Murtha explained. "There's the electrification of Chicago streets, the city of Austin's support of drone movement, connected vehicles, and micro mobility.
 
"Automated tech vehicles and transport," she said, "are a huge part of a connected city." Murtha mentioned a city that pooled together funds from 13 transit agency clients to consider electrification for 7,500 buses . Different successes ultimately work in conjunction "based on that city's interest," and even coming up with a "suite of solutions."
 
Murtha anticipates future smart cities to be defined by automation and electricity. She wants developers to ask the right questions, with, for example "nano technologies built into the asphalt," and the "asset management of cameras in cars," as examples.
 
Panel moderator Tyler Suiters, vice president, of the Consumer Technology Association, cited the city of Toronto as a success, with residents living in smaller (lower carbon footprint) dwellings, building new facilities with sustainable materials, giving consideration to how building materials are sourced, calling it "big thinking." 
 
And Suiters, Lightman, and Karayannis each stressed the pivotal and critical importance of "citizen engagement" when further developing smart cities. Lightman dubbed it "a private public collaboration," where the city informs (and gives time for consideration) to residents.
 
Karayannis believes in a need for "strong leadership in public policy" to achieve "net zero buildings," as "this is a destination not a journey."  For Karayannis, the top priorities for smart cities are social equity and mobility, as cities are decarbonized and electrified and mobilized. 
 
"The smart city of the future is real," Lightman said, "but we have to be so thoughtful and intelligent" about how we go about it, "you need that human interaction with the government and policy." She added that creating together will "improve efficiency." 

For more, check out NVIDIA shows off autonomous tech for cards and robots at CES 2020 on TechRepublic.

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