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    How to make smart city projects stick

    3 smart city success stories


    Working towards a zero-carbon world is an imperative — and something all reasonable human beings can join together to do. Correct?
     

    In fact, instituting the sort of smart-city solutions that curb carbon emissions can face roadblocks. Sometimes efforts bog down in collaboration between different stakeholders, who might have their own agendas and ways of doing things.

    Then too, sincere political considerations will often drive decision-making, no matter the scientific consensus. A mayor's rejection of a green initiative in response to pressure from constituents who fear it might affect their economic interests can be frustrating, but it's also how representative democracy works.
     

    Then there's the fact that a green initiative's timeline can stretch well into the future — longer than the incumbency of most elected officials, who are incentivized to think for the short term.
     

    And so on. So how do you make sure that smart city initiatives actually happen, and continue to be supported once they are under way? Given the intricate web of interests that come into play in any big public-facing initiative, there may be no single way. What follows are peeks at three projects that did successfully take root, how the smart city champions in each went about making them happen, and why similar projects elsewhere achieved less favorable results.

    London's congestion pricing triumph


    After 16 years, London's central city Congestion Charge system is working. The Congestion Charge is a fee (£11.50 daily in 2019) for driving a car into central London during peak working hours, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m.
     

    As of last year, traffic volumes in the area in question were down 25 percent compared to what they were 10 years earlier. The number of vehicles for personal use that entered the pay zone fell by 39 percent by 2014. Nitrogen oxide and PM10 emissions in central London are significantly down. And a healthier urban culture has emerged in the relative absence of the automobile: By 2016, bicycle traffic had risen by 210 percent in the congestion-charge zone.


    Not that the scheme didn't face opposition when the city bruited it almost two decades ago. The Westminster City Council and the Kennington Association went to court to block it. Yet the program had wide support from a range of other powerful stakeholders, and its “clear and convincing premise" pushed it through.


    The program offered both environmental benefits and material payoffs to Londoners — the latter in the form of promised improvements to the city's public transport system. Those improvements actually materialized, too: on the program's first day, in a sign of the city's competence and good faith, 300 new buses hit the streets to handle the new influx of non-drivers. The program is “largely accepted by public opinion," according to the Centre for Public Impact, and London's municipal government plans to expand green/smart city initiatives.

     

    By contrast: New York City's brand-new congestion pricing program is encountering considerable resistance. Part of the problem could have to do with how both state and local politicians have sold the plan: as a way to generate money to repair the city's dysfunctional subway system. That's made it seem as if drivers into Manhattan are being punished for the sins of the corrupt and ineffective New York political establishment that let the subways deteriorate in the first place. In such matters, trust counts.
     

    New York metro-area politicians are falling over themselves to carve out exemptions to the plan for their constituents, and polling indicates that New Yorkers would prefer a “millionaires' tax" to pay for much-needed improvements to public transport.

    Kansas City gets more user-friendly


    Far from the tech capitals of the coasts, Kansas City, Missouri, has established itself as a forward-looking smart city.
     

    Launching three years ago as a $15 million public-private initiative with partners like Cisco and Sprint, Kansas City's smart city program has equipped a 54-square-block corridor with interactive info kiosks, smart traffic signals and streetlights, free Wi-Fi, and a streetcar line.


    How did Kansas City become a smart city paragon? Whereas some smart city schemes can come across as profligate or too transformatively utopian, Kansas City's succeeds in making the city more of what it already is: a solid Middle American burg reclaiming a pedestrian-friendly core that generations of pollutant car culture and urban decline had considerably damaged.
     

    It doesn't hurt that the project's public face, Kansas City chief innovation officer Bob Bennett, is an articulate techie with deep local roots who, in interviews, winningly positions his work as an attempt to solve “people problems." (Not to mention canine problems. Kansas City also offers smart dog houses.) His stance plays well in an era of anti-tech backlash, when people may want the practical solutions that tech offers, but without the grandiosity or pretensions to changing the world that often come along with them.


    The city is planning to extend the corridor and furnish it with smart intersections and metering, and intends to devise a strategic plan for the area for the next 10 to 30 years. Kansas City, in other words, is just going to get smarter.

    By contrast: It's precisely the anti-tech backlash that seems to be foiling Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs in its attempt to build Quayside, a model connected neighborhood, on the site of industrial sprawl along the Toronto waterfront. Sidewalk Labs' maximal plan for a “complete community" has raised the hackles of activists spooked by data privacy and surveillance issues. Lawsuits have emerged, claiming that the project will violate Canadian citizens' rights.

    Fighting crime in Detroit, with citizen buy-in


    For too long a model of post-industrial urban decay, Detroit is coming back fast.

     

    One reason for that is the city's significant drop in crime: down 21 percent from 2014 through the end of 2018. That decline is due in part to Project Green Light, which offers an example of how governments can exploit anti-crime technology without touching off activist backlash.

    Project Green Light allows police officers in Detroit's Real Time Crime Center to use remote cameras for around-the-clock surveillance. The project currently targets gas station premises around the city.


    Why gas stations? City data from the first six months of 2017 indicated that almost 25 percent of Detroit's violent crime took place within 500 feet of a gas station, and after 10 pm. Equipped with a constant view of high-crime locations, cops can intervene fast.


    While the program has generated media criticism, no serious public outcry against it has emerged, and the city is even rolling it out to public housing. Motor City's crime rate has long been dire, making novel crime-fighting solutions more welcome than they might normally have been. But the program's acceptance also has much to do with citizen buy-in. Gas-station owners, not the police, install and own the cameras, in effect loaning them out to the authorities.

     

    The system streams the visual data that it picks up but doesn't archive it, helping to protect citizens' privacy. In addition, businesses signal that they're participating in the program by installing a bright green light on the premises, which warns anyone who cares that they're entering a surveillance zone.


    By contrast: Recognition, a recent project to deploy face-recognition technology in Orlando, has sparked backlash from civil libertarians, city residents, and even employees of Amazon, the Florida city's tech partner. So loud were objections that the project was scrapped for a while (although as of the end of 2018 it's on again).

     

    Far from cultivating citizen buy-in, the Orlando project imposes futuristic technology from the top down: facial recognition tech, after all, is a far cry from the Detroit-style video cameras that are common in convenience stores and elsewhere. The fact that the Orlando initiative features Amazon, an out-of-town monolith that's one of the highest-profile targets of today's anti-tech backlash, doesn't help either.

    Smart city success: what it takes


    Smart city technology represents a win-win: a way to drive serious green solutions and slow climate change while also enhancing the city experience. And if a smart city project can be hard to get off the ground, the cases above show that it can be done. Transparency, stakeholder buy-in, an orientation towards solving specific problems, and attention to local context can all boost the chances of a project's success.

    About the author

    Jonathan Weinert - A person wearing glasses and looking at the camera
    Jonathan Weinert has been researching and writing about LED lighting and the IoT since joining Signify in 2008. He focuses on the full range of professional connected lighting systems, including smart cities, smart buildings, and other global trends in the illuminated IoT.

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