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The Promise of Smart Cities

One day soon the streetlight will do far more than simply hold back the darkness. AT&T envisions an entire smart city where such poles might alert citizens to danger, respond to gun shots by enabling all lights in the area to automatically turn on, or determine how to conserve energy and still be effective in providing all the light needed. During the AT&T Developers Summit, held immediately before the Consumer Electronics Show in January, a vision for smarter cities was revealed by AT&T and their partner companies. Their combined vision is the Smart Cities initiative. 

Conceptually, not much about a smart city is new. The idea that cities can better deploy and use technology to improve efficiency and deliver better products to citizens at less cost has long been a hope. Some have estimated that the smart city market is around $1.5 trillion globally, but given its breath the number could go much higher. Inclusive of energy, mobility, healthcare, infrastructure, education, security and governance—no one will go untouched by the changes that are coming. Or are they? 

While a variety of funding approaches has been proposed, up-front costs will be a serious consideration. Like most information technology investment, the costs in the beginning can seem daunting but the benefits typically far outstrip the costs. Regardless, infrastructure investment will be different than in the past because of the inclusion of smart capabilities. Now, as roads get replaced the costs might be included for transportation sensors, or fiber conduits may be buried while construction is underway rather than having to tear up the streets again at a later time. And the public will have to choose whether the higher costs today are worth tomorrow’s promise. Of course, much of the innovation in infrastructure that has not typically been handled by government, for example office buildings and stores, would be handled by the private sector, which is even more critical for a truly successful smart city. 

Government, particular regulators and legislators, will need to immediately begin to think differently. Decisions made over years are perhaps fine when innovation is measured in years, but that is no longer the case. Quick, streamlined decision making should be the goal. A permissive sense of allowing innovation to move forward should guide all governing philosophies. 

But too often the incentives for government work in the opposite direction. Bureaucrats often see an advantage in slowing negotiations to extract promises from industry that they can later brag about to win future elections or keep coveted appointed positions. Others wring their hands in worry over the most remote chance of some theoretical harm and seek to extinguish all risk before allowing innovation to advance. 

But the beautification of the town square, or the risk of gadfly complaints, pales in comparison to the time saved and traffic congestion avoided when cars are able to direct themselves to open parking spaces as those spaces broadcast their availability. 

To realize the vision of smart cities, we need smart leaders in both the private and public sectors making smart decisions to let go of archaic thinking in order to unleash the potential of innovation.

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