What is a “smart” community, what are its benefits, and how do you get there?

This month, being a time of extraordinary heat and much-earned vacations, we at Utility LINE are taking a moment to recap some of our favorite monthly series. We begin this week with “smart” communities. Next week, we’ll tackle rural broadband initiatives, and in our final entry we’ll make the case for municipal broadband.

What is a “smart” community? I tackled this question first in December, and defined a smart city as a city that “uses information and communication technology (ICT) to make residents’ lives easier, healthier, and more productive.” Many do so by investing in broadband networks and analytic software, and work to use the data collected to improve traffic patterns; utility, water, and sewage services; and public safety.

The key to smart cities is a comprehensive broadband infrastructure, which may be provided publicly, privately, or by public-private partnerships (PPP).

The myriad benefits of smart cities revolve around sustainability and efficiency. As I discussed on December 16, smart grids have the potential to reduce energy consumption and emissions significantly. According to Juniper Research, “the reduced emissions are equivalent to those produced by the annual consumption of 130 million barrels of oil.”

Moreover, “sensor-networked and monitored city communications infrastructure — efficiently phasing traffic lights, and providing real-time guidance to drivers — can aid significantly in reducing [traffic] congestion.”

In short, smart cities employ ICT and broadband connectivity to gather data that can be analyzed and deployed to reduce energy consumption, emissions, and traffic. So how can a city get there?

Rick Robinson, the Urban Technologist blogger, gives us a starting point: “Creating ‘Smart Cities’ involves taking the right political, economic, social and engineering approaches to meeting [challenges faced by cities].”

Inconveniently for planners, politics cannot be avoided. As I argued in December:

[L]ike all significant policy changes, getting to “smart” requires political support from top city leaders. Infrastructure and technology projects with such support will have competent directors appointed, and citizen and business community buy-in will help ensure that such projects outlast any given electoral cycle. Projects without such support are likely to be stillborn, or to lose funding or competent direction once a city’s political power changes hands.

Political leaders must also be willing to shape the private market: In essence, because of the radical changes that getting to smart implies in how a city is run, laissez-faire is out and politically-directed market creation is in. Providing local leaders with the backbone to create such markets, in turn, requires widespread and dedicated bottom-up – citizen – support.

Getting to smart is a great goal, and the benefits are in terms of efficiency and sustainability are myriad. But the political and planning challenges can be daunting, so each city must decide if, when, and how to invest in smart improvements.

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