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What’s the Federal Government’s Role in Smart Cities?

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Cities could soon be largely automated with sensors that regulate traffic patterns, garbage trucks that are deployed only when the dumpsters are filled, and with cameras monitoring crime-ridden areas and using artificial intelligence to identify perpetrators.

Those and other futuristic elements constitute some technologists’ vision of the so-called smart city. But who’s responsible for bringing that vision to fruition?

One D.C. research and advocacy group says it’s the federal government—at least in part. City governments should manage most of the local technological upgrades, but the federal government must create incentives for them to do so, according to a report from the Center for Data Innovation.

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When cities “bear all the risk of failure,” they tend to “wait until others have worked out the challenges,” the report said. In a risk-averse environment, they’re unlikely to put up large amounts of research and development funding if they’re not expecting returns.

But the federal government isn’t doing all it can to safeguard smart cities, the report noted. Federal infrastructure dollars allocated to cities often focus on “concrete and steel” instead of “concrete and chips,” which means innovative cities can’t rely on national government funding to pursue smart infrastructure.

Other national governments have a head start. India, for instance, aims to build 100 high-tech cities by 2020, fueled by a roughly $7.5 billion investment. The United Kingdom set aside $55.9 million for 30 cities to investigate smart infrastructure.

Here’s what the Center for Data Innovation recommends:

  1. Federal agencies should share responsibility and sharing for certain smart city projects, including cybersecurity. They should also help set up the demonstrations for smart city applications and establish a handful of “comprehensive smart cities” to test out end-to-end systems.
  2. Some federal infrastructure funding should be reserved for smart cities, including new transportation systems or solutions related to the power grid.
  3. Agencies should establish policies and standards for smart city technology, so local governments can share their applications with each other.
  4. And before they do any of this, the federal government should ensure that smart city projects and investments will benefit, and not ignore, underserved communities.  

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