A smart, fully connected community is what we envision our tech-focused future will look like. While cities and towns are headed in that direction, their plans often get derailed by lack of funding, changes in government priorities, and trouble pinpointing where to start their journey. Guiding decision makers on how to invest in their city infrastructure is a challenge in itself; however it’s critical that their investments also include dollars for technology and services that connect those city-owned assets for added efficiency, public safety, and enhanced services for the overall community. Economic development concerns and building a “thriving municipal brand” are paramount to today’s leaders, as they compete for citizens and constituents and develop sustainable and resilient communities across North America.
Making the case for investments
All cities face issues with crime, outdated city equipment, sustainability, and traffic control. Coupled with budget restraints and an already full plate of other projects taking place across the city, connected technologies are often not the priority. When talking to decision makers and city stakeholders, it always helps to focus on the outcomes, whether that is reduced crime, energy efficiency, the ability to address deferred maintenance, or money savings. Outlining the end goals upfront helps cities better plan for upgrades, keeps the project running smoothly, and highlights the reasons why those investments should be made.
For many cities, those reasons include public safety and sustainability. City leaders should explain how implementing high-tech video surveillance or sensors can help improve response time for first responders, and focus on one of the biggest arguments driving the progression of smart cities, improved traffic control, and parking management. In addition, they should highlight how adding sensors, video, and analytics helps to keep streets safer and traffic flowing more easily.
Creating a cleaner environment is reason enough to invest in energy -efficient technologies, but an added push for many decisionmakers is how much money can be saved in the long run. Take LED street lighting or smart water meters, for example. Both are beneficial for the community, while also helping to save money on energy costs and often create new revenue streams. Those funds can then be filtered back into government budgets and spent on deferred maintenance or improving local parks and recreational areas.
Finding the right funding method
Cities are typically always the first to lose funding and the last to get it back. Too often, funding secured for government projects can come out of taxes, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Today, there are more funding options than in the past and depending on the appetite and level of risk the city leader is comfortable with, financing is available from both public and private sources. One option is through a public-private partnership (P3), which puts the responsibility for the financing, as well as the design, construction, energy efficiency, and ongoing operations, on a private consortium. Energy Performance Contracts (EPC) are also a popular avenue for the public sector relying on energy savings to generate cost savings. In general, improving a community helps to bring in more residents and visitors that contribute to the economy. A stronger economy means more money for funding additional city projects and the cycle continues.
How to get started
For most city leaders, the goal is to create a future-focused community and a vibrant city “brand” that attracts citizens and businesses to work, live, and play there. A completely connected city is attainable, and approaching it in manageable phases is often the best way to achieve smart city success and generally fits within city budgets and current resources. By embracing the concept of “land and expand,” cities can focus on one technology and then build on that infrastructure in the future. For example, investing in street lights can open up a whole world of possibilities. Smart lights or “vertical assets” are the perfect hub for connected technologies, as they can be a home for sensors that can detect gunshots, poor air quality, and even water levels in the event of a flood. Those sensors can then be used by government entities, like fire or police departments, to help keep the community safer. In an instance where there may be heavy smoke in one section of town, those sensors can be used to detect and alert authorities, who will help to let the public know and work to mitigate the damages. They can also be used to offer free public Wi-Fi connectivity — an added benefit to visitors and residents in outdoor areas.
The journey to smart cities may be a challenge, but armed with the right knowledge and partners, it is one that can be won. City infrastructure is at the heart of a community impacting schools, hospitals, traffic, and law enforcement. Focus on the positive outcomes achieved through investing in infrastructure and smart city success will be just around the corner.
Lisa A. Brown is sr. national director of smart cities and municipal infrastructure for Johnson Controls.