For smart cities to succeed, technology must improve peoples' lives

| by Elliot Maras
For smart cities to succeed, technology must improve peoples' lives

Rodney Williams of LISNR cites the importance of uniform data standards, flanked at left by Nick Bowden of Sidewalk Labs, Adam Blake of Zego, Lesa Mitchell of Techstars and N. Nagesh Rao of the Small Business Administration.

One way that the Internet of Things is expected to improve peoples' lives is the creation of "smart cities," where connected objects such as kiosks, buildings and vehicles will share data to optimize energy use, coordinate traffic management, reduce congestion and provide access to real-time information. Researchers expect smart cities will bring a better managed urban living experience for millions of people in the next decade.

Recognizing the potential impact of smart cities on urban life, this year's CES in Las Vegas included an entire conference track on smart cities. The Consumer Technology Association, sponsor of CES, estimates there will be 88 smart cities worldwide by 2025, and 70 percent of the world's population will live in a smart city by 2050.

For the average American, Wi-Fi-enabled kiosks in a handful of major cities are the most visible sign of smart cities. Cities such as New York City, Miami and Kansas City, Missouri, have installed these kiosks to make public transportation easier to navigate and make information more accessible to citizens.

However, panelists at one smart cities CES session stressed the importance of recognizing the potential benefits beyond the Wi-Fi kiosks. These comments were not intended to minimize the role kiosks are playing in improving urban living, but to emphasize that connected objects – including kiosks – should bring tangible benefits to city dwellers.

Execution is paramount

Panel moderator Lesa Mitchell, managing director for Techstars in Kansas City, an entrepreneur network, said the technology in itself is not enough to make smart cities a reality. Execution is needed.

"Just because you can put Wi-Fi on a kiosk to track all (peoples') movements doesn't mean you should," said panelist Nick Bowden, entrepreneur in residence at Sidewalk Labs, a technology company seeking to achieve new standards of mobility, sustainability, affordability and economic opportunity in Toronto. The goal of smart cities, he said, is to benefit the citizenry.

Kiosks, Wi-Fi and sensors are often associated with "smart cities," Bowden said, but "smart cities isn't just technology. It's policy, product and implementation."

Uniform data standards needed

Much of the discussion focused on the need for more uniform data standards to make smart cities a reality. The panelists noted that the data being used by buses, street light sensors and Wi-Fi kiosks isn't usually integrated. One of the biggest challenges that technology companies and planning agencies have to address is overcoming the data siloes that currently exist.

Panelists Adam Blake, CEO of Zego, a provider of digital platforms for residential properties, and Rodney Williams, founder and CEO of LISNR, a provider of ultrasonic audio technology to transmit information, agreed the one thing they would like to see in the smart city space is uniform data standards.

Bowden also agreed, noting that an ideal operating system for smart cities would support different services but allow for sharing common data. 

He said progress is being made in developing useful data for smart cities.

"How many low income (residents) ride bikes to work that pass through this intersection?" Bowden asked, offering an example of the type of camera generated data that currently exists. Such data will be important to government planning, he said, and it is available in a way that protects peoples' privacy.

What is a 'smart city'?

The fact that there is no single definition for the term "smart city" underscores the amount of work that lies ahead in making smart cities a reality. The term often refers to the technologies that support information access, governance, energy, building, mobility, infrastructure, health care and citizenry.

G. Nagesh Rao, chief technologist at the U.S. Small Business Administration, said efforts are being made to establish an agreed upon term, but the challenge is that when you "pigeonhole" something you deter creativity.

Rao emphasized that his agency wants to work with businesses that are developing technology for smart cities. He said the SBA has invested $2.5 billion annually in high-tech startups.

"The biggest thing I'm trying to do is demystify government," he said, adding that 70 percent of the technology in smart phones has been funded by companies receiving SBA funding.

Bowden confirmed that government agencies can be very helpful to technology companies.

He added that he would like to see venture capital investors become more involved in the smart cities space since the products are very capital intensive.

Challenges ahead

Another area the panelists agreed needs work is making identity management easier.

At the present time, paper documents are used to verify individual identities, and such documents are required for most types of transactions, Bowden observed. 

Rao said the number of verifications a person currently needs to apply for a home mortgage is crazy.

"There has got to be a better way to automate this," he said.

The panelists noted that India and Estonia are ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to simplifying identity management using technology. The U.S. needs to catch up with what these countries are doing to reap the benefits of digital data management.

India's biometric-back identification system, called Aadhaar, is an identity number issued to residents based on biometric data that has made it possible for the government to digitize benefit transfers, allowing beneficiaries to keep benefit payments stored more securely, according to Mobile Payments Today.

Aadhaar makes it easy for people to confirm their identity when opening a bank account, for example.

Estonia's e-Residency platform is an electronic identity system that residents and those with business interests in Estonia use to access government services. 

Urban living will become more convenient as smart cities evolve, but as the panelists noted, a lot of cooperation is needed among the various parties involved.

Topics: Customer Experience, Government, Internet Access Kiosk, Networking / Connectivity, Wayfinding / Information

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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