Smart cities were born from the idea that the most environmentally sustainable, most culturally vibrant, most efficient, safest and most equitable places to live in the future will be cities. The movement is evolving daily, with some of the most obvious indicators showcased in the neighborhoods of cities like Stockholm, Chicago, New York and Tokyo. But smart cities are being built everywhere, in communities large and small. This list was created to recognize communities of all sizes whose efforts have either flown under the radar or whose leaders have recently undertaken new initiatives that add interesting new dimensions to already-promising work. These are the smart communities to watch in 2018.
Some people see unmanned aerial vehicles as creepy, flying pests. Not Paul Riemens, the chief executive of Amsterdam’s RAI convention center, who wants to turn the Dutch capital into the “city of drones,” which is what he calls his new initiative promoting drone development and deployment in the city of 2.4 million residents.
“Our goal is to provide a platform for knowledge, contacts and innovation as we aim to make Amsterdam the drone capital of the world,” Riemens said in April.
Siemens’s enthusiasm is partly fueled by new drone regulations the European Union plans to implement next year as unmanned vehicles take over more functions in logistics, law enforcement, and government services. But with Amsterdam’s density, educated workforce and advanced public transportation — not to mention his previous career as the head of the Netherlands’ air-traffic control operation — Riemens thinks his city can take the lead.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
In 2012, a project jointly-led by the U.S. Department of Transportation and University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) installed 2,800 wireless sensors in city residents’ cars to test a vehicle-to-vehicle communication pilot.
The devices audibly and visually alerted drivers to dangerous situations, and represented one of the largest smart car deployments ever. The city of Ann Arbor partnered with the project in 2015, and three years later, it’s won an IDC Government Smart Cities award for its efforts.
The deployment of the wireless devices has grown to include pedestrians and cyclists since the study’s inaugural fleet, enabling lower carbon emissions, fewer accidents and improved traffic efficiency. The program is expected to grow — UMTRI says it will have more than 3,000 vehicles equipped with the technology by this fall.
The city is also using smart sensor technology to deal with increased storm flooding in recent years. Through another partnership with the University of Michigan, the city developed a package of smart sensors to measure and control storm valves, called “Open Storm.” The data measured by the sensors, including the water quality and flow, is open-source and available for student researchers to explore in real time.
A 2014 episode of “Parks and Recreation” features Aziz Ansari’s character trying to keep up with an automated park management system. The sitcom played it for laughs, but since 2016, Arlington, Texas, has implemented a very real version that’s led the Dallas suburb to save a lot of money and earn some national praise.
Arlington’s operations and asset-management system recently won one of IDC Government Insights’ inaugural Smart Cities North America Awards for its organization of about 50,000 municipal assets, about half of which belong to the city’s parks and recreation department. The assets range from roads and signs to benches and irrigation systems to 10,000 trees. The system allows city employees in the parks and public works departments to keep track of their operations.
Storing the data on an Amazon cloud server allows 200 workers in the field to access city assets. As a result, Arlington is moving more and more of its municipal operations away from outmoded spreadsheets stored on aging mainframes. So far, it’s paying off: The city estimates it saved 3,300 hours of labor in the first nine months alone.
Austin’s smart city initiatives are outlined by a Smart City Strategic Roadmap that highlights the city’s accomplishments and next steps for building out civic tech. Paperless government services, discreet sidewalk smart sensors and a smart mobility roadmap are among the achievements the city had made in recent months.
The city has also made it a point to empower local civic tech development in their drive to become a smart city. In March, a $100,000 prize for local startups was announced by the Austin Tech Alliance and a Texas-based coworking space, Capital Factory, for innovations that would improve the quality of life for city residents.
Austin is also launching a pilot program that would provide real-time updates for blind and visually-impaired public transportation users through Austin CityUP, a consortium of local businesses and government agencies.
Austin CityUP is also using a smart city research lab — called 2nd Street Smart Living Lab — to deploy a network of sensors across parts of the city to measure city data like pedestrians traffic, sound, and air quality. The data will be shared with the city, businesses and civic groups, CityUP says, to develop the expertise, technologies, plans and policies to address all civic issues.
Boston, more than most cities, is serious about the intangible problems often encountered around the development of smart cities.
After developing its Smart City Playbook, introduced in 2016 by the city’s office of New Urban Mechanics, the city has put out a request for proposals for its Beta Blocks Action Research Project, which will tackle the issues of inaccessibility, bureaucracy and usable infrastructure for residents interested in developing their own smart city projects within the city.
The program is intended to make it easier for residents to test new experimental civic technologies, interactive street furniture, and engage in activities in designated blocks around the city. Officials say they hope it will also encourage relationships between the city and startups that call it home.
“The ultimate goal of Beta Blocks is to ‘open source’ city streets, creating a living clearing house between community challenges, questions, and ideas and the companies, researchers, and designers who might be able to offer a hand,” the city’s RFP reads.
The response deadline passed on April 30, and while the city is considering responses, it has been busy enough on other smart tech initiatives: an autonomous vehicle testbed and an informal collaboration with local data sensor lab LocalSense are part of the city’s broader plans to create an affordable, accessible and flourishing living environment for its residents by the year 2030.
Four years ago, Boulder launched a transportation master plan that was centered around adding to its bike infrastructure, making its intersections more pedestrian-friendly and bolstering public transit. This year, it’s joining 21 other cities around the country as part of Transportation for America’s Smart Cities Collaborative, in which officials will exchange ideas about emerging transportation technologies and how they affect street and sidewalk usage.
“We like working with other cities to learn what they’re doing,” said Boulder spokeswoman Gretchen King.
That new partnership should come in handy for Boulder, which is on the verge of opening its streets to dockless bike-sharing on top of the 43-station, 285-vehicle bikeshare network it already has installed. Boulder plans to contribute to the collaborative with lessons from its Access Management and Parking Strategy, an ongoing review of the city’s land-management and parking policies that’s helped it cut down on underutilized parking spots and make way for newer forms of transportation as more residents go car-free.
Beyond transportation, Boulder’s also poised to be a hub for the latest emergency-responder tech as the host of the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab.
Two years ago, the Ohio capital beat out dozens of other applicants for a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and another $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to reinvent how it moves its residents around. And since then, more investment has continued to pour in.
The city is aiming to use its data to address inequality between its wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods, create ways people in low-income communities can find jobs and actually travel to them, and address its high infant-mortality rate.
Along the way, city officials are also going long on electric vehicles, which is where the money comes in. With the grant from the Allen Foundation, Columbus envisions emissions-free vehicles throughout city government by 2020, and charging stations throughout town as more residents go electric.
Meanwhile, another $200 million in private and public investments has rolled in to an acceleration fund, with the money targeted projects like modernizing the electric grid and building an autonomous-vehicle testing ground with Honda at the Ohio State University.
The Columbus Partnership, the public-private organization overseeing Columbus’s smart-city initiatives, says that all together, the grants and other investments total $500 million so far, and they’ve got their eyes on reaching $1 billion.
For more on the city’s smart technology plans, see our interview with Columbus Chief Information Officer Michael Stevens.
Detroit is worth watching if for no other reason than to observe its initiatives as an acid test of smart city tech’s rallying power. Detroit escaped federal oversight on April 30 after logging the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013 and ended fiscal 2017 with a $53.8 million budget surplus. Things are looking up, but if there was ever a city in need of a little help revitalizing, it’s Detroit.
City Chief Information Officer Beth Niblock told StateScoop in March that Detroit was sorting through applications for a new “director of emerging technology,” an official who will lead a wide range of innovative projects, including those that use smart city tech. Drones, police body cameras, car-mounted cameras, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, video analytics, digital voice assistants and chatbots are all on the table, Niblock said.
Niblock also says Detroit’s executive leadership has the city poised for technological success. “They’re willing to try all kinds of stuff,” she said. Democratic Mayor Mike Duggan himself has signaled that he isn’t content only to continue Detroit’s slow climb out of its reputation as the worst big city to live in, but has aspired to “replace desolation with prosperity.”
Madison lost out four years ago on the big Transportation Department grant that eventually jump-started Columbus’s smart-city makeover. But it’s forging ahead with many of the plans it put forth in its grant application as it seeks to become a “living mobility lab” driven by electric cars, autonomous vehicles and data-collecting sensors all over its streetscape.
In February, the city set about installing short-range communications devices on busy intersections near the University of Wisconsin that let traffic lights detect approaching buses, with the goal of using the resulting data to develop rapid-transit lines. Over the longer term, the city also plans to upgrade its gas and electric grids, deploy a network of environmental sensors and build a city-owned 4G network for its public-safety and public-works agencies.
The city and the University of Wisconsin are also wrapping up a three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation to build out a gigabit internet laboratory to attract developers of ultrahigh-bandwidth applications. In 2018, Madison is continuing its transit and mobility projects as part of Transportation for America’s Smart Cities Collaborative.
State of Ohio
As early smart city projects have sprouted up, some have lamented a lack of coordination. First in Illinois and now in Ohio, state leaders have launched smart state initiatives designed to corral disparate projects across cities into a common framework intended to ensure interoperability and eliminate duplication of efforts by identifying which ideas work best.
In April, Ohio announced the award of a $5 million contract to AECOM Technical Services to help the state develop just such a framework, with a particular emphasis on the state’s many experimental smart and connected transportation projects. Through a 12-month project, the vendor is expected to address issues of device interoperability, data management, and government-industry partnership. Ohio officials say the state will serve as a valuable convener and organizer, bringing much-needed support especially to smaller cities with less money to spend on experimental technology projects.
Lessons learned through DriveOhio, the Ohio Department of Transportation’s smart mobility program, and Smart Columbus, a project now supported by a half-billion dollars in federal and private investment after the City of Columbus won a $40 million Department of Transportation competition, are expected to gain a wider audience through the smart state initiative.
State involvement like this, says DriveOhio Executive Director Jim Barna, could just be a step on the road to national standards for a rapidly evolving industry.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer announced an initiative last May to power the city with 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050, which supports the city’s current goal of providing 100 percent of municipal electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Dyer also recently charged city departments with the task of moving virtually every government service onto digital platforms.
The city is also partnering with local universities to see through some of its innovation goals. In partnerships with the University of Central Florida, Orlando has developed testing pilots for several intel