Smart City 2.0: Economic Development In A Digital Metropolis

The “smart city” has been a topic of discussion for more than a decade, with technology put into practice in locales throughout the world to varying extents. With Internet of Things (IoT) technology making advances of late, we’ll see more strides during 2016 and beyond. This article is the fourth in a series by John Gordon, chief digital officer of Current, powered by GE, addressing what may be the next wave in smart cities. Please share your experiences, thoughts, and questions on this topic in the Comments section below.

By John Gordon

Have you ever had an idea to improve your city? Have you ever thought that there were better ways to get around, or find something you were looking for, or even more generally to find something interesting to do? I’m sure most of us have. But if realizing those ideas involves putting a technology infrastructure across the city, chances are that your idea never made it to reality.

This is one of the major problems of the Smart City 1.0 movement. Since cities are inherently complicated environments, only the largest and most complicated businesses could build and maintain solutions that would scale to the needs of the world’s largest cities. Yet it is precisely those cities that would benefit from innovative ideas from citizens.

smart city
Credit: Hemera Technologies

In my last post, I discussed why industrial companies are best suited to help deploy, secure, and maintain digital infrastructure for the Smart City 2.0 where broader, lasting impact is made. These companies are used to building open infrastructure that can be used by anyone and don’t attempt to solve every problem. This open infrastructure can increase equity across all city stakeholders by enabling anyone with a good idea to participate in the next wave of technology advances.

Let’s compare what someone would have to do to create a solution in a typical city versus a Smart City 2.0. Today, if you had an idea for building an application to help simplify traffic or parking or where to stand to find the most empty subway car, you might have to (1) create sensors to capture the data you want, (2) figure out how and where to install them to collect data, (3) go through permitting to gain approval to deploy sensors, (4) physically schedule the deployment of sensors, (5) ensure that the data came back to the cloud securely… and all this before you could even begin writing an application to solve a problem!

This process is so complicated that it is sure to dissuade all but the most committed innovators (or the largest tech companies who have large teams committed to this process) to go through the effort. How many great city innovations have died before they were even started?

Now, let’s compare how this would work with deployed, open, city-wide digital infrastructure. With digital infrastructure active and in place, and simulated data-sets open and available for all developers to use, if you have an idea for a solution, you can prototype it in an evening, using code that you know will work on the city. A many-month long process turns into, potentially, a few hours. You can be testing your solution that day and getting feedback on its design and value.

This is really happening, and it’s happening now. I was recently at a hackathon in the Bay Area where about 200 developers worked for two days building very innovative applications on simulated data from city infrastructure. Their solutions, which were built against ubiquitous LED streetlights as the open infrastructure platform, ranged from helping people locate AED devices for victims of heart attacks, to helping walkers finding the safest way through parks, to creating a new hands-free experience to finding parking. And all of these solutions could be converted instantly from simulated data to real data without the need to deploy any new infrastructure.

With open, digital infrastructure opportunities like this one thrive. The barriers to entry are virtually eliminated. New companies are able to innovate, and the opportunity for investors to find real returns — and create jobs — grows exponentially. I predict that city leaders that endorse digital infrastructure will see an explosion in incubators and venture funding in this space. Even high school projects can build skills to solve these real world problems.

Digital infrastructure will propel more people into the digital economy, allowing individuals and corporations to innovate and partner to unlock new outcomes.

The next wave of economic growth is upon us. City leaders who invest in the infrastructure to support it will enable all of their citizens to participate, making life better for all.

smart cityGordon is the chief digital officer of Current, Powered by GE, where he is responsible for orchestrating an enterprise-wide energy transformation by leveraging the capabilities of GE’s Digital business. Prior to Current, Powered by GE, John was the vice president of IBM Watson Solutions, and previous to that position, he was the director of IBM’s Smarter Cities business, where he was responsible for coordinating a global team to develop the initial end-to-end Smarter Cities business. Gordon received his MBA from The University of Texas, Austin and his BA from the University of Notre Dame.