Tag Archives: Digital cities

Sharing Information to Gain Competitive Regional Advantage

by James A. Bacon

Very different models of regional competitiveness are emerging as people think seriously how to harness the power of smart cities. In metropolitan regions like Charlotte, Seattle and San Diego, for example, major property owners are collaborating with municipalities and power companies on communal energy-efficiency initiatives.

Tapping the potential of “smart grids” is a great idea. But that’s just a start. Udaya Shankar, a vice president with Xchanging, sees smart buildings as the foundation for smart cities. Writing in IoT World, he recommends that smart buildings pool information for mutual benefit. “When buildings operate in a silo, we gain no insight into the effects one has on the other, and if a smart city is the sum of its parts then there is something to be lost in keeping them separate.” He envisions a future in which smart buildings connect and talk to cities and to one another.

It’s an intriguing premise. Shankar provides few examples of what kind of information sharing property owners can share, but we can think of a few.

Smart grid. Almost all smart buildings draw electricity from the electric grid. They monitor their consumption carefully and have some flexibility as to how much they consume and when. Sharing this information can help the power company optimize its generation and transmission assets, benefiting everyone through lower rates.

Water. All smart buildings consume water. In many municipalities leaking water pipes is a major issue (up to 20 percent of all water is lost through leakage). Sharing of usage data can help water companies identify leaks, reduce water loss and delay the need for expensive capacity expansions.

Parking. Many smart buildings maintain parking assets for their employees: either open parking lots or parking garages. Sharing information about parking capacity and usage can help cities better match parking supply and demand. By optimizing the amount of valuable urban land dedicated to parking, cities can convert excess parking to more productive uses that yield more taxes.

Lighting. Cities operate street lights. So do many smart buildings. Sharing information can allow cities and building owners to reduce the wattage needed to light public spaces, thus conserving electricity and curbing light pollution.

Security. Smart buildings typically are equipped with security cameras to provide added security for occupants. Sharing video feeds with the city can provide law enforcement authorities with more eyes on the street, helping prevent and solve crimes.

Transportation. Smart cities utilize a variety of strategies — mass transit, walkable and bikeable streets, road improvements, car- and van-pooling — to manage traffic demand, many of which require cooperation with employers. Sharing information about employees and their transportation needs can help cities fight congestion.

We’re moving into a world where the sharing of information confers competitive economic advantage. Here in Virginia, we should start by encouraging state agencies and local governments to open up their data — not just to link to it from websites but to make it available so anyone, whether a business enterprise or a civic activist, to add value to it. Then we should start creating mechanisms whereby building owners can share information with local governments to tackle public challenges ranging from energy conservation to traffic congestion.

Communities that move first will gain competitive advantage. Those that are slow to adapt will fall behind.

Innovative Virginia

Innovative State, 2014, by Aneesh Chopra; used with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Innovative State, 2014, by Aneesh Chopra; used with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

In his new book, “Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government,” Aneesh Chopra makes the case for using technology to transform government in the United States. Weary of the old liberal-conservative debate of more government/less government, Chopra espouses effective government. In this book, he comes across as conservative in his frank acknowledgment that government often falls short in the execution of its goals. But the former Virginia Secretary of Technology and former Chief Technology Office for the Obama administration remains steadfastly liberal in his conviction that government can be a force for good.

While I hew to the view that less is more when it comes to government, I concede that certain core functions in American society are best provided by government. I believe that what government chooses to do, it should do well. And, like Chopra, I believe that technology can play a major role in improving government performance. That’s why I’m excited to make available to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion Chapter 3 of his book, which describes his experience as Secretary of Technology during the Kaine administration. I expect that readers will be impressed by Chopra’s approach as a pragmatic problem solver and encouraged how often, away from the spotlight, Virginia politicians are willing to cooperate on a non-partisan basis to get things done.

After resigning his job as CTO for the federal government (you’ll have to buy the book to find out what he did in that post), Chopra made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party nomination as Lieutenant Governor. But he remains active in Virginia, as co-founder of Hunch Analytics, based in Rosslyn, which applies Big Data and Predictive Analytics to solve problems in education, energy and health care, and working behind the scenes with Governor Terry McAuliffe on workforce development and veterans affairs. I expect we’ll be hearing more from Chopra who, at 42, has a long career ahead of him. — JAB

Chopra

Aneesh Chopra

Chapter 3
The Virginia Model

Back in 1999, the Virginia legislature was seeking to make someone accountable for nurturing entirely new industries throughout the state, while making sure the government’s internal use of information technology was effective and efficient. Virginia became the first state in the nation to create a cabinet position for a Secretary of Technology. Three men would fill that role over the next six years, and their work over that time contributed to Governing magazine’s 2005 selection of Virginia as the “Best Managed State.”

In 2006, Tim Kaine, the successor to outgoing Governor Mark Warner, chose me to the the fourth Secretary of Technology. He had a different spin on the position, one in tune with the times. By 2006, the Internet had transformed the way consumers accessed information and conducted commerce. yet, though it had improved some services such as e-filing tax returns and renewing professional licenses, it had not meaningfully transformed the relationship between citizens and their government. Kaine assigned me to prioritize the improvement of that interface. I realized that one of the most important things government can do is remove restrictions that exist for really no good reason. On a visit to Google, for example, I learned two things: one, most people get to government websites through search engines, not by typing in their URLs, or bookmarking them; and second, government, perhaps unintentionally, made it difficult for search engines to index information that the public had the right to know. Within 90 days, we initiated a no-cost collaboration to simplify and standardize the interface between search engines and government websites, making it easier for the public to find what they need. We formed a coalition of four states, two led by Republican governors (Utah, California) and two by Democratic ones (Arizona, Virginia), whereby Google, Yahoo and Ask.com agreed on a standard sitemap protocol that the states agreed to adopt. Those states then assigned their webmasters to implement the new protocol, a task that took about an hour per site. By the launch in April 2007, Virginia had tagged about 80,000 of our own web pages (URLs) for addition to the participating search engines. In the first year of the initiatives, we observed a 40 percent spike in site visitors, at no cost other than the modest incremental staff effort.

One of the promising aspects of that initiative was its bipartisan backing. Before my term even started, and as it progressed, I made a point to reach out to members of the Republican-led legislature. Through those conversations, I became convinced that many in both parties viewed technology, data, and innovation initiatives from a more pragmatic prism, beyond the usual, inflexible left-right division. That was evident when those Republicans invited me, a Democrat, to partner as a nonvoting participant on the Joint Committee of Technology and Science (JCOTS), which organized small working groups that included members of the executive and legislative branches, as well as concerned citizens. More than a dozen bills endorsed by JCOTS passed through the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support and were signed into law by Governor Kaine, including Republican-sponsored legislation to expand rural broadband access, adopt health IT standards, and permit school boards to purchase open source education resources.

Democrats, while a minority in the legislature, also attempted to put their signature on the smarter government movement, with the endorsement of the executive branch. Consider the way Business One Stop came together. Governor Kaine, wanting to buoy the state’s reputation as business friendly, sought to offer every Virginia entrepreneur a single destination to complete all the forms required to start a new enterprise — a task that otherwise might involved as many as seven state agencies, such as the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Department of Taxation, and the Virginia Employment Commission. Governor Kaine, inspired by South Carolina’s presentation at a National Governors Association meeting, gave me the assignment of creating something similar.

Upon digging in, our team estimated that implementing the South Carolina model — which not only improved the user experience but also connected with existing systems within each impacted agency — would require an investment of roughly $7 million. That estimate far exceeded our available funds. So I improvised… Continue reading.

How Planners Can Rescue Virginia from the Fiscal Abyss

This is a copy of a speech that I presented to the Virginia Chapter of the American Planners Association Monday, with extemporaneous amendments and digressions deleted. — JAB

Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here. Urban planning is a fascinating discipline. As my old friend Ed Risse likes to say, urban planning isn’t rocket science – it’s much more complex. Planners synthesize a wide variety of variables that interact in unpredictable, even chaotic, ways. In my estimation, you don’t get nearly enough respect and appreciation for what you do

OK, enough with the flattery. Let’s get down to business.

toastThis is you. You’re toast. Unless you change the way you do things, you and the local governments across Virginia you represent are totally cooked. … Here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to tell you why you’re toast. And then I’m going to tell you how to dig your government out of the fiscal abyss, earning you the love and admiration of your fellow citizens.

Why You’re Toast

old_people2Here’s the first reason you’re in trouble — old people. Or, more precisely, retired government old people. Virginia can’t seem to catch up to its pension obligations. The state says the Virginia Retirement System is on schedule to be fully funded by 2018-2020. But the state’s defines 80% funded as “fully funded,” which leaves a lot of wiggle room. The VRS also assumes that it can generate 7%-per-year annual returns on its $66 billion portfolio. For each 1% it falls short of that assumption, state and local government must make up the difference with $660 million. As long as the Federal Reserve Board pursues a near-zero interest rate policy, depressing investment returns everywhere, that will be exceedingly difficult. A lot of very smart people think 5% or 6% returns are more realistic. In all probability, pension obligations will continue to be a long-term burden on localities.

potholesSecond, the infrastructure Ponzi scheme — that’s Chuck Marohn’s coinage, not mine — is catching up with us. For decades, state and local government built roads and infrastructure, typically with federal assistance, proffers or impact fees with no thought to full life-cycle costs. State and local governments have assumed responsibility for maintaining and replacing this infrastructure. Well, the life cycle done cycled, and the bill is coming due. We’re finding that we built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain at current tax rates, leaving very little for new construction.

accotinkThird, after years of delay, serious storm water regulations are kicking in. Local governments bear responsibility for fixing broken rivers and streams like Accotink Creek, showed here. (Yeah, that’s a creek. It’s having a bad day.) Best guess: These regs will cost Virginia another $15 billion. But no one really knows. And it may just be the tip of the iceberg. I recently talked to Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and she noted that a lot of the storm water infrastructure that developers built in the ‘50s and ‘60s is crumbling. The developers are long gone. Someone’s going to have to fix that, too. Guess who?

property_taxMeanwhile, the largest source of discretionary local tax dollars – real estate property tax revenues – is stagnating. According to the Demand Institute, residential real estate prices in Virginia will increase only 7% through 2018 – the third worst performance of any state in the nation. Don’t count on magically rising property tax revenues to bail you out.

In fact, the tax situation is worse than it looks. Demand for commercial real estate is dismal, too. Consider what’s happening to the retail sector. We’re going from this…

shopping_centerTo this..

amazon_warehouse

Every Amazon.com distribution center represents dozens if not hundreds of chain stores closing. It means more vacant store fronts, more deserted malls, less new retail development. Continue reading

Does Virginia Want to Be a Wireless Friendly State?

cell_towerStates and regions that want to stay in the vanguard of economic growth need to expand their broadband infrastructure. Mobile data traffic will increase 13-fold between 2012 and 2017 by some estimates. To accommodate that growth, the wireless industry will have to build new cell towers, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and other infrastructure. However, permitting and regulation is a big problem in many states, according to George state Sen. Judson Hill.

Writes Hill in The Hill:

New tower construction and collocations of antennas on existing sites helps local economies. New towers typically cost between $250,000 and $300,000, and collocations run upward from $25,000. Moreover, new 4G wireless broadband networks support local job growth and improve economic vitality. Economists Robert Shapiro and Kevin Hassett found in their recent study that “every 10 percent increase in the adoption of 3G and 4G wireless technologies could add more than 231,000 new jobs to the U.S. economy in less than a year.”

Unfortunately, differing, cumbersome and unnecessarily complex local government permit processes have impeded investment and construction of new wireless facilities infrastructure in many states. Denials or long delays in approving permits for new cell towers or antenna collocations have been the experience for countless wireless infrastructure providers. Public safety communications challenges and lost economic opportunities, including foregone job creation, are regrettable byproducts of these denials and delays.

Georgia law requires local governments to issue timely permits — within 150 days — and ends the practice of imposing excessive processing fees. He concludes: “States should proactively pursue regulatory and tax reforms to remove roadblocks to wireless infrastructure facility construction. Greater economic and public safety benefits will come to states that best position themselves to enhance their 4G wireless broadband network build-out.

Bacon’s bottom line: How does Virginia stand when it comes to cell tower permitting? Hill suggests that Georgia, Missouri and Washington are the only states that have addressed these issues legislatively so far — but maybe Virginia doesn’t have a problem that needs fixing. Or maybe it does. Does anyone know?

– JAB

Will Virginia Cities Be among the 600?

wi-fiMadrid-based GOWEX, which specializes in creating wireless smart cities, aims to bring free Wi-Fi connections to 600 cities around the world by 2018 in partnership with Cisco, the American networking giant. (Read details in the “Datamorphosis” blog.)

The Spanish company has an interesting business model. Everyone with a smart phone can get on the Wi-Fi network for free; an upgrade (€8 in European cities) gets them a connection that runs 12 times faster. GOWEX also sells advertising targeted to a person’s specific geographic location. The company charges the host municipality nothing but the city gets a network that can serve as the backbone for such solutions as smart transport and parking, urban safety, traffic management and smart tourism.

Cowex undoubtedly will find its way to the Washington metropolitan area. Will Richmond, Hampton Roads and Virginia’s smaller metros be among the 600? If we aren’t vying for a GOWEX-Cisco solution, is anyone considering an alternative that offers comparable Wi-Fi capabilities? Virginia cities aren’t in the vanguard of change — GOWEX is already in 90 cities around the world, and we’re not among them. Will we at least keep up with the global pack — or will we fall behind?

Is anyone even thinking about these things? All I hear is crickets chirping.

– JAB

Harnessing Citizen Science

thingful

This first section of this post by James A. Bacon is cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog…

Recent years have seen the rise of what European Union officials are calling “citizen science,” a phenomenon in which amateurs, enthusiasts and others acting in a non-official capacity collect data (usually environmental data), participate in the design of projects and subject the data to analysis for public benefit. This trend is gaining momentum as the cost of acquiring environmental sensors drops for everything from CO2 levels to water quality, as mechanisms arise for citizens to share their data online and as activists in one location inspire citizens in another.

Indeed, there is so much activity that the European Commission Joint Research Centre convened a “Citizen Science and Smart Cities Summit” in Ispra, Italy, this past February. The Centre now has published a report, “Citizen Science and Smart Cities,” summarizing the main findings and recommendations.

There often is overlap between municipal smart-cities programs — an increasing number of European cities are setting up sensor networks to measure key environmental quality indicators — and grassroots citizens initiatives. Also, notes the report, there is “increasing recognition in the scientific community that to address the key challenges of the 21st century we need to move beyond the boundaries of discipline research and engage in research that is multi-disciplinary and participatory.”

Unfortunately, there has been little synergy between citizen and municipal initiatives. It is difficult to compare the results of citizen science and smart cities projects or translate findings from one context to another. Moreover, citizen data often disappears after the projects wind down, making it difficult to reproduce results.

The report makes a number of recommendations. One is to map citizen-science and smart-cities projects and generate a semantic network of concepts between the projects to facilitate searches of related activities. Another is to create a repository for data, software and apps so they can be maintained beyond the life of projects and be made shareable.

Bacon’s bottom line. The Euro-weenies are way ahead of most American metropolitan regions (especially Virginia metros) in applying sensors, wireless and Big Data — essentially, the Internet of Things – to the business of running their cities. Admittedly, much of Europe’s activity is top-down, fostered by national-government and European-Union subsidies, but a lot of it — especially the citizen science piece — is bubbling from the bottom-up. I see next to nothing here in Virginia, whether top-down or bottom-up.

The map at the top of this post comes from Thingful, a search engine for the Internet of Things (IoT). Each data represents a data set that someone has posted to Thingful. Follow this link to see the density of published data sets in Virginia compared to that of other cities around the world.

A region’s ability to compete in the global economy depends upon its collective capacity ability to boost productivity and innovation. The IoT is supplying a new set of tools by which to advance those aims. If we snooze, we lose.

While regions in Europe, Asia and even Latin America race to embrace IoT technology and reinvent themselves (the new Indian government has announced its intention to build 100 smart cities), I get the feeling that Virginia’s metropolitan regions are lollygagging along. The Internet of Things is not part of the public discourse. I see nothing written about it in our newspapers and magazines. Whenever I write about smart cities, I get next-to-zero feedback. If the readers of Bacon’s Rebellion aren’t interested — and you are indubitably the smartest and most perceptive citizens in the commonwealth — what hope is there?

The Internet-of-Things Steamroller and the Economic Competitiveness of Cities

by James A. Bacon

Well, I’m a steamroller, baby, I’m bound to roll all over you.
Yes, I’m a steamroller now, baby, I’m bound to roll all over you. …
– James Taylor “Steamroller

The words to James Taylor’s blues classic “Steamroller” have been churning through my mind during the 2014 Niagara Summit hosted by Richmond-based Tridium as I learn more about the constellation of technologies known as the Internet of Things — the ubiquity of sensors, the falling cost of wireless and data-storage technologies, the rise of “big data” and the emergence of incredibly sophisticated algorithms — and the impact they will have on the business landscape and society at large.

The Internet of Things (IoT), to borrow Taylor’s imagery, is a steamroller, a demolition derby, a napalm bomb. It will flatten — or, to borrow the tech buzz word du jour, totally “disrupt” — the business landscape. Most Americans have yet to hear of the Internet of Things. But as the next wave of the ongoing IT revolution that has transformed the world since the 1980s, it is as momentous as the rise of the PC, the Internet and mobile computing. Admittedly, the IT industry thrives on hype and the search for the Next Big Thing. But there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind at Tridium or among the industry illuminati speaking here that the IoT is for real. IBM, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel and other industry giants are all piling into the IoT. Google recently paid $3.2 billion dollars for Nest Labs, a company founded in 2010, that manufactures smart home thermostats!

Tridium, whose Niagara Framework software provides the IT foundation for the building automation industry, announced yesterday its intention to expand into adjacent sectors involving large, complex facilities, including data centers, industrial plants and smart cities. Tridium, the most successful IT company ever to emerge from Richmond, is bidding to carve out a big chunk of the IoT. And, as fluid and unpredictable as the IT industry is, it has as good a shot as anyone at this point of being successful.

I have been blogging the event for Tridium’s blog Datamorphosis from an industry perspective but it is impossible not to think about the public policy implications of the IoT and, in particular, the smart cities movement. Asia and Europe are applying IoT technologies far more aggressively than most American cities. As Carrie MacGillivray, an analyst with research firm IDC, noted yesterday, the city of Barcelona, located in debt- and deficit-ridden Spain, is running a budget surplus. Its IoT initiatives have generated roughly $10 billion in savings. Admittedly, smart city initiatives, many of which focus on energy conservation, deliver bigger savings in countries where the average price of a kilowatt hour of electricity is two to four times that of the United States. But European cities are forging ahead in areas such as water and sewer, garbage and recycling pick-up, and parking and traffic management. 

Whether you call it smart cities (evocative of IBM’s “smarter cities” advertising campaign) or the Municipal Internet (a term I just coined), the Internet of Things is sweeping through local government. There will be a lot of experimentation, a lot of false starts and a lot of bad investment that will prompt a lot of political hoo-ha and blowback. But cities and municipalities will learn a lot along the way and, like Barcelona, the intelligent ones also will make a lot of sound investments that (a) drive down the cost of providing basic services, (b) address chronic problems like parking and traffic congestion and (c) promote citizen engagement.

Anthony Townsend, the author of “Smart Cities” whom I recently profiled (“Tech Insurrection“) spoke yesterday at the Niagara Summit. He made the point that citizens and entrepreneurs operating outside the framework of government-funded infrastructure initiatives also have a lot to contribute. Tapping IoT technologies and accessing government databases that have long languished unused, grassroots movements can make cities more environmentally friendly, more responsive to citizens and just plain more fun to live in.

He gave the example of the Trees Near You app that draws from New York City’s tree census data to provide information about some 500,000 trees that live on city sidewalks. “No one at Cisco is ever going to think this app up,” he said, and if someone did, it would never win corporate approval.

oktoberfest_of_thingsThe “Democratization of technology” made possible by the IoT can become a force for social change as well. Citizens have established networks of sensors that measure ozone concentrations with much greater granularity than is possible in large cities monitoring only four or five sites. Another example of bottom-up innovation is Four Square, a social networking app that provides recommendations from friends and associates on the best restaurants and eateries in town, informs you when friends are nearby and extends deals from retailers near you. Some applications are frivolous or amusing, such as the Oktoberfest of Things, which uses sensors to measure how much drink is left in large beer steins. But there is something to be said for making a city a fun place to live.

Some of these innovations may be taking place in Virginia under the media radar but there is not much sign of them. The Virginia Department of Transportation is investing in IoT technology to upgrade the capabilities of some of its highways, mainly in Northern Virginia. But some of that investment has been squandered. (Maybe I’ll be able to talk about Virginia’s rest stops one day.) The City of Richmond is doing some interesting things with Big Data but it is too early to know if anything useful will come of it. Otherwise, I have heard of very little. If anything is happening, it is due to the initiative of exceptional government officials acting on their own — for there certainly is no groundswell of public opinion, or even of public discourse, here in Virginia.

Cities that adapt the most quickly and intelligently to the IoT revolution will gain an immense competitive advantage in the years ahead — they will be able to provide a superior level of public services at less cost to taxpayers. This is the new frontier of economic development. Virginians need to embrace the IoT or miss an historic opportunity to win the race for livability and the competition for human capital.

The Demon in the Machine

Chris Spencer

Chris Spencer

By James A. Bacon

On Oct. 25, 2013, Chris Urmson, a leader of Google’s autonomous car project, proclaimed that legal and regulatory problems posed no major barrier to the commercialization of Self-Driving Cars (SDCs). When accidents did occur, he told attendees of the RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara, Calif., data collected by the cars would provide an accurate picture of exactly who was responsible. He shared data from a Google car that had been rear-ended by another driver. The annotated map of the car’s surroundings clearly indicated that it had halted smoothly before being struck by the other vehicle.

“We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data,” Urmson said. “The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

The very same day, Toyota settled a case in which an Oklahoma City jury had awarded $3 million for a 2005 incident in which a Camry driven by 76-year-old Jean Bookout had accelerated out of control. Bookout had said she tried to use the foot brake and emergency brake to no avail. Toyota lawyers had argued that she must have hit the gas instead. At issue was the performance of an electronic throttle control system that replaced mechanical links between the accelerator pedal and the throttle in older models. Siding with Bookout, the jury bought the story that the electronic throttle was flawed.

Google may have data on its side but accident victims sometimes have judges and juries on their side. Toyota had won all previous unintended-acceleration cases and an exhaustive study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could find no flaw in the brake’s computer code, but the judge instructed the Oklahoma City jury that it could find a product defective even if no defect could be identified.

“It opened the floodgates,” says Chris Spencer, a Richmond, Va., attorney who has represented automobile manufacturers in hundreds of cases, including dozens that have gone to trial and reached a jury verdict. “All a lawyer has to do is get his client to say, ‘I did nothing wrong but something went wrong – it must have been the vehicle’s fault.’”

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

Continue reading

Tech Insurrection

AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

Coming up: Cars and Traffic Lights that Communicate

audi_displayThere are smart roads, and there are smart cars. The next step in the evolution of the digital city is smart cars that communicate with the smart roads.

As Jennie Xie writes for Atlantic Cities, there is considerable innovation in traffic signals these days. An increasing number of signals are synchronized to accommodate changing traffic flows during different times of day, week and year. Some are programmed to respond to changing conditions in real time. Meanwhile, new cars are rolling off the factory floor equipped with sensors and control systems designed to prevent inattentive drivers from drifting across lanes or tailgating too closely.

What if the traffic signal sent off a message telling cars when the light was about to change? In theory, cars could adjust their speed to reach the intersection when the light was green. If the traffic signals were networked, people could drive a lot farther before encountering a red light.

Automaker Audi is testing such a technology in Berlin and Ingolstadt in Germany and in Verona, Italy. And in Oregon, Texas and Utah, Green Driver is testing a mobile app that uses data from city traffic management systems to offer signal prediction regardless of the car being used.

The technology could well reduce congestion, concludes Xie, but there are safety concerns. It could cause problems if lights start changing unpredictably, if drivers speed up to catch lights, or if drivers pay more attention to the technology displays than to the actual road conditions around them.

Let’s hope that someone deep in the bowels of the Virginia Department of Transportation is paying attention to this trend. The time to pilot-test these new technologies is now.

– JAB