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Harnessing the Internet of Things to Meet the Challenges for 21st Century Cities

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an amazing new revolution in technology that connects everyday objects that are not traditionally connected to the internet. This week, ITI’s Dean Garfield emceed a great @Microsoft conversation entitled “Powering 21st Century Cities with the Internet of Things.”

The panel discussed how IoT presents an immense opportunity to transform the ability of cities to offer new services to their residents, optimize the efficiency of existing services, and improve the overall sustainability and resiliency of their communities. In this regard, I had three favorite quotes from the panel that encapsulate the potential for smart cities thanks to the IoT revolution underway:

Dan Hoffman, the Chief Innovation Officer for Montgomery County Maryland, said, “IoT can fundamentally disrupt pretty much every public sector function.” (Dan also noted, “IoT alone is pointless. You need the political will, fortitude, and skills to act on the data it generates.”)

Caralynn Nowinski, the Executive Director of UI Labs, said, “IoT changes who’s empowered to make cities work.”

David Doll, Industry Principal at OSIsoft, said,: “IoT is creating data where there is none. It creates opportunities we haven’t even imagined yet.”

The dynamic conversation also focused on the challenges that the U.S. is facing in scaling and accelerating the adoption of IoT for smarter, more livable cities:

  • Lack of investment: Cities may lack the resources and appetite for long-term investments in Smart City infrastructure and capabilities. (While some applications, including smart parking and sensor-enabled water infrastructure monitoring, have shown a return on investment (ROI) domestically, the market remains immature for many applications. Companies are still developing case studies to prove the value proposition, and an elected officials need both assurance and rapidity of ROI!)
  • Leadership challenges: Empowered and effective senior leadership, such as a city chief technology officer (CTO) with broad authority to reengineer core processes, has proved to be an important ingredient in efforts to develop Smart Cities capabilities in cities like Chicago and New York, but is often missing elsewhere.
  • Complicated and fragmented procurement processes: Tech entrepreneurs have been slow to tackle government data applications in part because the marketplace remains highly fragmented and complex to navigate, with each city imposing its own lengthy procurement requirements.
  • Technical challenges: Developing and scaling new data-driven functions will require advances in unified data platforms, interoperable sensor networks, modeling approaches, cybersecurity, and more.
  • Absence of design for scalability: When cities develop capabilities appropriate to their particular needs, they tend to underinvest in features that allow these solutions to scale to other cities.
  • Need for technical talent: Cities often struggle to attract the technical talent necessary to solve problems with the data-driven approaches enabled by new technology.
  • Absence of collaboration during planning and knowledge sharing between cities: Considerable differences persist between the most advanced cities and technological laggards, and no forum exists to enable cities to jointly implement or collaborate on smart cities capabilities.
  • Lack of R&D investment across sectors: Federal investments tend to focus on particular sectors, but the most effective Smart Cities solutions often rely on applications that span sectors, such as those that connect transportation and energy systems.
  • Legal, regulatory and privacy issues: New data-centric applications can raise novel issues of liability and insurance, present challenges for existing regulatory regimes, and generate concerns about data privacy.

I am curious as to whether others agree with this list, or not.

Perhaps more importantly, there is the question of how those of us in Washington, DC, can be helpful in addressing the challenges. Dan Correa of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy discussed his office’s outreach efforts, looking at how the Executive Branch can play a supportive role. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Co-Chair of the bipartisan Internet of Things Caucus, spoke of Congress’s role as, “Learning to do only what’s necessary and no more... How can we do the minimum, so you can do the maximum?”

ITI is also exploring how we can be more helpful. Both Dan Hoffman and Caralynn Nowinski talked about the importance of Microsoft and other large tech companies not only being at the table, but also helping to educate and bring leadership through discussions like yesterday’s panel. That presents both an opportunity and a challenge, to realize the transformative potential the IoT will offer to improve our society.

Public Policy Tags: Environment & Sustainability, Intelligent Efficiency, Internet of Things
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