Smartphones, Smart Cities

The author of this article once found themselves at a conference about Smart Cities. Within about five minutes into the first speaker’s speech, they realized they were in over their head. The types of people that go to these conferences tend to wear government nametags, work at a tech startup, or have a PhD (or all three, sometimes). They talked terms of policies and platforms, constituencies and regulations, and spoke of visions for urban livability, workability and sustainability (those three being the core values of the Smart Cities Council).

Yet, by the end of that very same day, after a rapid-fire bombardment of approximately a dozen technical speakers and topics in succession, it all came to make sense. The systems, the policies, the apps, the jargon, as well as, interestingly enough, the underlying civic passion that powered the energy in the room, they all lead to the same question: how do you make life in the city easier, better, nicer?

You see, the “Smart” in “Smart Cities” really is just the same as the one in smartphones.

The square brick in your pocket is a truly revolutionary device. It is a powerful computer on demand, a globally connected portal to near-infinite information, equipped with countless functionalities that replace everything from the camera to the credit card. It has also—and this is the most revolutionary thing—come to feel completely natural, because it makes the mundane things we do every day so much easier, and it makes things that were once hassles, if not outright impossible, easy and mundane. For the unfortunate millions inflicted with smartphone addiction (this author included), not having one in hand can feel as if you’ve lost an appendage.

A smart city is similar. It will not come heralded with neon signs and flying cars. It probably won’t involve cyberpunk fashion. It will—it already has, subtly—change the way you live in some very interesting ways. It does so through the very same advantages that powered the smartphone: information, connection, and software. It’s Big Data in traffic lights. Just like smartphones, the power is in the mundane.

One of the “classic” examples of the Smart City innovation is the aforementioned “smart traffic light.” A traditional traffic light is timed, tuned by municipal engineers to aim for the best traffic flow. A smart traffic light incorporates sensors which can help reduce idle time at the intersection, and feeds data upstream so that the engineer can make even better models from the data. The result is an easier, smoother commute for you.

A smarter traffic light may include multiple other sensors (temperature, air quality, etc.), which allows the municipality to implement smarter and more effective policies. A really smart traffic light is connected to and exchanging information with self-driving vehicles on the road, public transportation in the region, Google Maps-style tracking patterns that anticipates residents’ potential movements, etc., constantly tuned by self-learning AI as incomprehensibly large amounts of information are fed into the ever-improving model. The result: your best possible commute.

One of the conversations at the aforementioned conference involved public safety, in which the author learned (and everyone else already knew) that one of the most important metrics in public safety is response time—how fast emergency responders can get to an accident or incident. Unsurprisingly, there is a very strong correlation between low response time and the chances to save lives.

Consider: if emergency services have a clear, real time view of the city’s traffic, they would be able to move more quickly to the scene. If they have a predictive model that anticipates frequency and severity of incidents, they can assign personnel and resources more efficiently, reducing even more response time. If they can also coordinate efficiently among branches and departments, that’s another chunk of time cut. All of which requires improved data and investment into software and infrastructure, and all of which translates very directly into saving citizens’ lives.

And that’s just the traffic lights.

Las Vegas is one of the cities leading the way in the smart city movement, having implemented an Innovation District specifically to create a testing ground for these innovations. We hope to share some of the more interesting projects coming out of it in the future. In the meantime, check out Smart Cities Council’ global news page for short posts on how cities are implementing their smart city initiatives.