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Experts say 2022 is the year smart city projects move from flashy to functional

In recent years, smart cities have received criticism for over-promising and under-delivering—experts think that could change.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photo: Getty Images

· 5 min read

In recent years, smart cities have received criticism for over-promising and under-delivering—or, in many cases, failing to deliver at all.

However, due to a combination of new government funding and what experts say is a shift in perspective about how to approach these projects—from tech-first to resident-first—smart-city experts told us they’re optimistic about the prospects in 2022.

“What we’re seeing now is that you can have connectivity, electrification, and autonomy. You don’t have to just pick one,” Karen Lightman, executive director of the Metro21 Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, told Emerging Tech Brew. “We can, with some catalyst investment money from the federal government, encourage the private sector to come in and jobs can be created. I really feel like 2022 is the year.”

The year ahead

The recently passed infrastructure bill contains $500 million in grants that cities around the country can apply for to pursue their own smart-city efforts, from building out autonomous and connected vehicles infrastructure to kickstarting smart-grid projects. The bill also carves out $65 billion to expand broadband to underserved areas around the country, including less-connected urban areas.

“There has been a lot of talk about doing things, but cities are not well-funded. They don’t have a lot of money to spare. This is going to be huge,” Andres Carvallo, CEO and co-founder of smart-grids and smart-cities consulting firm CMG Consulting, told us at the time.

Lightman called the bill a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to connect people historically left out in infrastructure efforts.

Under the bill, the Transportation Secretary will have $100 million at their disposal each year, 40% of which can go to large communities, while midsize and rural communities each get 30% respectively.

Those funds can be used on a variety of smart-city projects, but there are some restrictions. For instance, cities can’t use any of the funds in the grant program for traffic or parking enforcement activities or license-plate readers. But some privacy advocates, like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, expressed concern in August that expanding smart-city projects could lead to greater surveillance without more explicit privacy protections.

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Working backward

Choosing which projects to fund moving forward—with or without the aid of government cash—is the tricky part.

Early smart-city projects, like Sidewalk Toronto or Sidewalk Labs’ spin-off company Replica’s work in Portland, Oregon, were hyper-focused on flashy technologies—like creating autonomous delivery carts or city-wide transportation prediction models—and paid less attention to the needs of city residents. Both projects folded in 2021.

Experts say that tendency is changing, and that city governments are now working backwards from the needs of their residents to figure out which projects to pursue.

“Maintenance and the ongoing cost of that is really starting to make people think. People have now gone through that cycle of buying the widgets. A lot of people have now had that first hit of maintenance and gone, ‘I don't want to do this every five years, because actually, I didn't need that in the first place,’” Marc Evans, VP of government solutions at Dude Solutions and a smart-city consultant on the Toronto Sidewalk Labs project, told Emerging Tech Brew. “You don't just put something in today and it works forever. ”

One example of an early project shifting from flashy to functional is Columbus, Ohio’s smart-city initiative. The project was funded by $50 million in grants from the DOT and Vulcan, Inc., which the company won as part of a 2016 smart city competition. Since then, it has strayed from its original smart-city vision, which included plans for an autonomous shuttle service, and has instead shifted focus on projects like a food-bank delivery service.

“We’ve had a lot of infrastructure decades ago that cut communities out from each other, cut [out] people of color, destroyed neighborhoods, sometimes intentionally, with a highway dividing a community,” Lightman said. “We have an opportunity to build better, but doing that means you have to go into those communities. You need to have co-design workshops, user-centered design. You need to get your hands dirty, and you have to ask the hard questions.”

There’s also no guarantee that city residents will view technology and smart-city projects as particularly high on their list of priorities. In a recent survey of residents across 118 major cities worldwide, respondents’ top priorities were affordable housing, employment, and health services—things that could be helped by tech, but also by non-tech solutions.

And Toronto’s Sidewalk project received community pushback that contributed to its collapse, as activists, business leaders, and residents alike argued that Sidewalk would upend the neighborhood and bring invasive monitoring.

“Technology is still an important part of it. It’s one of the ways to improve, but it’s not the sole thing, and we have to use it sustainably,” Debra Lam, former managing director of Georgia Tech’s Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation team, told us. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution for everyone. You have to really think about what the problem is and what the local context is. And then you have to think about how it’s actually applied.”

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