Smart Cities Are More than Just an App

An Interview with Jennifer James with Black & Veatch

It’s easy to look at some of the amazing smart city projects in Beijing, Barcelona or Amsterdam with a sense of awe. When you see technology integrated seamlessly into a city’s fabric, creating greater ease and efficiency for citizens, it almost looks easy.

But in the beginning of a project it seems like an overwhelming undertaking – an almost impossible task. Aligning stakeholders, defining vision, determining priorities, selecting the appropriate technology and implementing an integrated solution are just a few of the milestones. Let’s just say, it’s complicated.

But some people thrive in this complexity and I had the opportunity to talk with one of them – Jennifer James with Black & Veatch, a firm that provides infrastructure support and project planning for companies all around the world. James defined so well what I’ve struggled to articulate. She said, “Smart City infrastructure is hard. And messy. And critical. It’s more than just an app.”

James went on to talk about the impressive technology that was demonstrated at Smart Cities Week in DC (Sept 27 – 29) – an array of sensors, devices and connected solutions. Walking the tradeshow floor on my way to our interview, it was easy to get overwhelmed by the myriad of options.

She instantly provided some relief by reinforcing a sense of hierarchy. Before procuring a bunch of gadgets, wise city leaders begin by defining what powers these technologies and creating a roadmap of their physical and digital infrastructure, which includes energy, transportation, and high-speed Internet.

Cities that focus on innovating in these areas will quickly push far ahead of those that wait. As the world becomes increasingly urban and more citizens move to city centers, they place a greater demand on local infrastructure. Looking into the future, James opines, “If changes aren’t made, things are going to be a mess.”

In the B&V Smart City/Smart Utility Report, when asked, “What do you see as the primary driver for cities/communities to implement smart city initiatives?” Forty-two percent of cities chose “Improve efficiency of operations/reduce costs.” This is quantitative data to support what city CIOs, CTOs and elected officials are all discussing. And in a smart city world, nothing exists in isolation. Everything is integrated blurring the lines between physical and digital infrastructure. This can be great news for creating budget efficiencies, reducing redundancies and increasing cost savings. In a true Smart City, there is no such thing as a single project – pilots quickly merge into smart city program.

The US is in early days when it comes to Smart Cities, but even still, best practices are beginning to emerge and Black & Veatch is at the center of many of them. They help cities, like Chula Vista, plan for the future, creating roadmaps that emphasize resiliency and define their own unique flavor of intended impact. They help define the gaps and anticipate adoption. They take vision, add adaptive planning and create solutions that ultimately enable citizens to live better lives.

“Getting to “smart” is often an evolution, not a revolution. But as communities and utilities move toward 2.0 implementations, master planning will be critical to smart city strategies. We know that more applications are being developed than will be sustainable. This is a good thing. We will learn from both the successes and the failures.”