Our Cities Are Getting Smarter and You Probably Didn’t Even Notice


Many smart innovations are subtle and are already working in major U.S. cities.

Imagine having to take out the trash only twice a month, or knowing what parking spots are available before arriving at your destination and swiftly paying for them via your mobile phone.

The term “smart cities” conjures up images of futuresque, "Minority Report"-style communities in which every car is autonomous, advertisements recognize and follow you wherever you go, and police officers fly around on jetpacks. But a many smart innovations are more subtle than that—and are already working in major U.S. cities.

Trash bins in some airports and streets compost themselves, street lights monitor traffic and parking, and sensors prevent sewers from overflowing into rivers during floods. This kind of “smart” technology, in which basic infrastructure like water, power, transportation and sanitation is connected to the internet, is being piloted in the U.S. in places like Boston, Massachusetts; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco, California; and South Bend, Indiana.

The average citizen in those cities may not have noticed the effects because they aren’t as flashy as something like driverless cars, which are now on the road in Pittsburgh and other places. Unlike Uber’s experiment in autonomously shuttling passengers in the Steel City, which has earned quite a bit of public and press attention without offering Pittsburgh much else in return, few residents think about how unsexy traffic signals may be improving congestion on those same roadways. They’re just happy to get around faster.

Cities don’t need to implement every connected solution to be considered “smart.” The technology works best when it’s used to solve specific, existing infrastructure issues, says Dan Correa, senior adviser for innovation policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Correa worked on the Obama administration’s Smart Cities Initiative, which launched last year to provide federal funding for infrastructure and other innovations in US cities.

When heavy rains fell in South Bend, for example, wastewater would overflow into the waterways and back up into residents’ basements. South Bend was faced with the prospect of overhauling its pipes and treatment plants. Instead, it paired up in 2012 with researchers from the University of Notre Dame, who, with the support of IBM, developed a network of sensors and smart valves that could detect when water levels were rising and divert flows elsewhere.

The smart system in South Bend cost $6 million, compared to the $120 million the infrastructure overhaul would have cost, Correa says. IBM corroborated those figures in a 2013 Harvard Business Review story.

“The goal of our efforts is to help citizen communities overcome barriers to use technology for real benefit,” says Correa, who also praised another project, theTransportation Department's Smart City Challenge, which awarded $50 million to Columbus, Ohio, to adopt a connected transportation system. “That requires a detailed understanding at the local level… And we’re beginning to see a return on investment immediately.”

Other burgeoning smart innovations being tested include technology that can better predict where fires may start and alert inspectors or first responders, structural monitoring of roads, bridges and tunnels so authorities know when they need repair, and smart lighting and other technology that can alleviate traffic congestion.

Verizon recently acquired Sensity Systems, a startup that uses LED light controls equipped with sensors or cameras that can monitor weather, traffic, parking, or safety conditions. It can also dim or brighten the lights for energy efficiency or public safety (lights could be turned up at night on crime-ridden street corners, as an example). The telco is also piloting various smart solutions in Boston, where it’s laying fiber-optic cables, and in Charlotte, North Carolina; Bedford Park, Illinois; Spokane, Washington; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

At the intersection of Mass Avenue and Beacon Street in Boston, Verizon is reportedly collecting data on how often bicycles roam outside of bike lanes and how frequently vehicles operate illegally in the intersection or double-park in the area. That information can help the city plan better to improve traffic conditions.

Verizon hopes these efforts will provide new growth as the U.S. wireless market hits saturation. It wants not just to install smart infrastructure, but manage it for a fee, providing parking management, light controls, or video monitoring systems to malls and other businesses, or to government entities.

Verizon has invested in a number of other internet of things startups, including Telogis and Fleetmatics, which both make connected car technologies, and LQD WiFi, which builds street-ready connected kiosks. Verizon also launched a platform called ThingSpace earlier this year to help connected device makers develop and deploy new technologies using its APIs.

AT&T, Samsung, Oracle and IBM have similarly invested in smart city initiatives.

Still, many U.S. cities rank behind those in countries such as Japan and Singapore when it comes to deploying smart infrastructure.

It’s unclear how much support this type of infrastructure will receive from the incoming administration. President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to work with lawmakers to boost infrastructure investment by $1 trillion over 10 years, through tax incentives for private investments and public-private partnerships, he said in his proposal for his first hundred days in office.