The 2018 Smart Cities Connect conference in Kansas City, MO brought together officials from various levels of government as well as those in business and academia, all to discuss the evolution of smart cities and what communities can do to stay at the forefront of that evolution.
Organizers estimated nearly 2,000 attendees joined the discussion over three days, with more than 400 cities from the United States and across the world represented. They listened to keynote addresses and panel discussions on a variety of topics, including autonomous vehicles (AVs), data, blockchain and infrastructure. And businesses had the chance to showcase their smart city technology, both in the conference’s expo and on stage with live demonstrations.
Here are five trends Smart Cities Dive identified from the speeches and panel discussions at the event, as well as from interviews with stakeholders.
1. Failure is an option, so long as it’s a learning moment
As cities look to innovate and use technology to improve residents’ lives, they shouldn't be afraid to fail, so long as they learn from the experience and the financial impact isn't too large from that failure. "When smart cities go bad, sometimes it’s a good thing," Kansas City CIO Bob Bennett said in a keynote speech.
While San Diego’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer David Graham acknowledged failures can leave a "sour taste" among residents and government officials, various speakers emphasized it can be helpful in the long-term. "This whole concept of failing is about learning," Aurora, IL CIO Michael Pegues said in a speech.
2. Teamwork makes the dream work, both inside and outside government
Another key tenet of the conference’s panel discussions and speeches was the need to form partnerships to help makes cities smarter, both across government departments and between the public sector and private businesses. Mark De la Vergne, Detroit’s Chief of Mobility Innovation, said during a panel discussion Michigan’s regional effort to prepare for the growth of AVs took that into account, as neighboring cities took a "We’re learning, you’re learning, let’s try and learn together," approach.
Kate Garman, Smart Cities Coordinator for the City of Seattle, said engaging with the business community on new technology and innovations could mean "thinking outside your normal box, whatever that means" and fostering a closer relationship. Danny Rotert, senior strategic consultant at Burns & McDonnell, said innovation "happens across your organization and should be celebrated across your organization," referring to either government or business.
And for businesses, partnering with cities means they need to “reimagine the way we work with cities, understand their feedback and their problems,” Alex Keros, Smart Cities Chief at Maven, General Motors’ urban mobility arm, told Smart Cities Dive. "It’s looking at the data and saying, ‘How do we go and try new things, and make it so we can test things?'" he added.
3. Cities must engage residents on all projects at all levels
Those partnerships are also crucial between cities and their residents, especially the need for governments to show how smart city solutions make residents’ lives easier. During a panel discussion, Garman expressed concerns that cities are doing smart cities projects “for the sake of saying they’re a smart city and not realizing what it’s for."
Speakers said it can be helpful to set expectations for projects early on and give residents a seat at the table throughout, especially in educating them of the benefits and letting them test out new innovations. Farrah Cambrice, a professor at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, TX, said that means "treating your community less like research subjects and more like co-principal investigators” as projects are tested and refined.
Lafayette, LA Mayor Joel Robideaux said engaging residents can take many forms when a project is in place, especially something complex like a city’s use of cryptocurrency. Lafayette refers to that form of payment as “Crypteaux” as a nod to residents’ French heritage, and Robideaux said its use can be as small as by incentivizing residents "to pick up litter or whatever and reward them with a Cajun coin or whatever we come up with."
4. An equitable approach is a lasting one
Multiple city leaders said smart city innovations must also be carried out with all residents in mind and be equitably beneficial for everyone. "The inclusive approach to this is what’s going to make it sticky and give it longevity,” Graham said.
Prairie View, TX Mayor David Allen said during a panel discussion that, for the most part, people’s favorite acronym could also be their favorite radio station: "WII FM – What’s In It For Me?" He said while it can be great for city leaders to unveil new technologies and shiny new objects, it must be done while keeping in mind that "people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care." Similarly, TJ Costello, Director of Smart Cities and IoT for the Americas at Cisco, said there has been a definite "shift away from the smart shiny object chasing."
In his own speech to the conference, interim San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell, D, discussed the city’s plan to provide high-speed internet to all city residents, and said that while it will help businesses and be cheered by people who lament slow speeds, it is being done with one eye on the poorest in the community.
By providing them better service, Farrell said they can close the “digital divide” with better access to jobs and it being easier for their children to do their homework assignments at home. "If [closing the digital divide] alone is the only thing we get done, I will tell you my time in public office has been worthwhile,” Farrell said.
5. The future is now, and government must be ready
In his keynote address, Bennett said that the smart city "movement" will be "an interesting footnote in history" in 10 years. By then, he said, such innovations will be commonplace and any city that has not made strides will be left behind in a “digital Rust Belt” of falling populations and few job opportunities. “If we don’t build smart cities, [young people] are going to leave,” he said.
Graham said as technology becomes more widely used in city government, those who work in the smart city space must go from being "evangelists to engineers.” Graham said they must also look to the ongoing conversations around the state of the nation’s infrastructure to frame their arguments in favor of smart city innovations and try to bring the two into the same conversation. “Infrastructure is the new yellow brick road,” he said. “That’s the place where cities are spending a lot of money.”
And in a speech to the conference, Bruce Patterson, Technology Director of the City of Ammon, ID, laid down a challenge to his colleagues. Patterson touted the city’s internet speeds of 1GBps, which had been improved thanks to a government-led initiative and are available to all residents and businesses for less than $60 a month. "If we can do it in rural Idaho, you can do it in your communities," he said.