Think back 150 years. Consider the fate of a city that decided not to connect to America’s burgeoning railroad network. Or 100 years ago, a city that decided not to pave its roads to accommodate horseless carriages. Or 50 years ago, a city that chose not to connect with the interstate highway system, the essential arteries of 20th century commerce.
It’s a fair bet that none of those cities would have become dynamic, economically vibrant population centers, if they survived at all.
Now consider the fate of a city that decides not to connect to the Information Superhighway, that decides not to participate in the digital transformation that is revolutionizing the private and public sectors.
Without a strong digital infrastructure, a city is destined to wither and fade.
Becoming a “smart city” like San Jose is, of course, not easy. Nor is there any standard place to start to seize the full benefits of digital infrastructure. Even so, here are three digital on-ramps that have become popular with cities around the world.
ONE: Smart Street Lights
A growing number of cities are seeing street lights not just as a way to illuminate our night environment, but as valuable “vertical real estate.” When electricians mount their bucket trucks to replace old bulbs with energy efficient LEDs, they’re also snapping in communications modules. When they’re done, they have a canopy network that spans every neighborhood.
That communications network can monitor the performance of the street lights. It can also support surveillance cameras, or shot-spotting microphones, or environmental sensors, or touch-screen kiosks on the side of the light poles … or dozens of other “Internet of Things” applications.
For example, the City of San Diego is deploying one of the world’s largest Internet of Things platforms based around smart street lights. The platform will monitor air quality and traffic, locate open parking spaces, listen for gunshots, and more.
TWO: Open Data
A second digital on-ramp is open data. In many places, it is still a chore to collect and analyze the data sitting in public records. People trek to City Hall to wait in line for a document that they, as taxpayers, have a right to see: crime records, commercial and real estate filings, tax tallies, environmental surveys or any of the seemingly infinite number of data sets cities collect and store.
Once city governments publish these documents in machine readable form, however, they have the opportunity for a breakthrough. Commercial enterprises can use them to understand where to locate their next store or factory. Developers can program useful city applications to, for instance, show which restaurants have health code violations or when the snow plows will come to their streets or where to find the nearest licensed day care center.
And with an open data portal, city agencies themselves can get needed information without bothering colleagues in other departments. Once a city can easily merge data from multiple sources, amazing applications become possible. More and more cities, for instance, are using predictive analytics to spot children at risk (of dropping out, of being victims of domestic abuse, etc.).
Creating more open data requires documents to be formatted in ways that will allow for others to use and analyze them. And it means cities need systems that can deliver that data to the people and organizations who need them.
THREE: Digital by Default
A third digital on-ramp is called digital by default. Many cities are adopting the goal of having all their services available digitally for smart phones or browsers, and doing so allows people to be what the Smart Cities Council calls “happier for less.”
A 2012 study in the U.K. showed that transactions between citizens and city workers are 50 times more expensive face-to-face and 14 times more expensive by phone compared to self-service digital transactions. Moreover, citizens are happier because they don’t have to drive to a city building, pay for parking, get shuffled around to multiple offices and face the many other inconveniences that can be unfortunate hallmarks of interacting with City Hall. In short, cities can spend less to make their citizens happier.
As a result, more and more cities are proclaiming their commitment to deliver all services digitally whenever possible. San Francisco, for instance, has hired a Chief Digital Services Officer and built a complete San Francisco Digital Services Strategy .
Likewise, as part of its commitment to be a user-friendly city, San Jose is working to "ensure that all non-private city data is open by default in easily usable and understandable formats." Equally important, the city aims to integrate its datasets with those of other relevant agencies, such as school districts, the County of Santa Clara, the Valley Transportation Authority, and the U.S. Census Bureau.
We’re currently in the midst of a quiet, but inexorable revolution when it comes to city adoption of digital technologies. Some cities are way ahead in the process, others are only getting started. But none of them can afford to bypass the essential on-ramps to digital transformation.
Jesse Berst is chairman of the Smart Cities Council, which is holding a smart cities conference where officials can learn directly from the cities that are pioneering the smart city movement, including the winners of the council’s annual Smart Cities Readiness Challenge. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Interested in writing an op-ed? Email pitches to [email protected].