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Panel: Future of competition could be between smarter cities

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Smarter cities have well-connected networks of city departments, databases and utilities, according to panel.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Smart cities need a smart infrastructure to get ahead and draw more young talent in, according to Wim Elfrink, chief globalisation officer of Cisco Systems.

Speaking during a panel discussion about app developers and intelligent cities during The Economist's two-day summit about big data and information on Tuesday afternoon, Elfrink explained that a smarter city has one network with everything connected rather than current models where most city departments and utilities each have their own network and databases that don't talk to each other.

See also: Panel: The promises and perils of big data

But citing an important argument that we've all been hearing about putting sensors and such all over cities, panel moderator and Economist digital editor Tom Standage commented that smarter cities often sound like big sales pitches from the likes of IBM and Cisco to buy more of their stuff.

Thus, Standage inquired about the reality and state of smarter cities right now.

Both Standage and Elfrink acknolwedged that Rio de Janeiro, for example, is a poster child for the dream of a smarter city. Rio is in the midst of organizing to host the World Cup and the Summer Olympic Games in 2014 and 2016, respectively, so the panelists agreed that they need a smart infrastructure set up for security purposes.

Elfrink remarked that he loves that Rio has a headline because of these events, forcing government departments to take action faster. But Standage still didn't seem convinced as to how much the Brazilian metropolis has evolved into a smarter city.

Remaining optimistic, Elfrink explained that these smarter infrastructures and cities are all about productivity improvement, assisted living, reducing the cost of healthcare, and more.

"For me, the future of competition is going to be between cities," Elfrink posited. "So how can you build an infrastructure for your city to make it more competitive?"

Zia Yusuf, CEO of smart city technology provider Streetline Inc., commented that on the city side of this, officials are looking at the economics of it all and where they can save money.

Yusuf cited that 30 percent of a city's traffic on average usually stems from drivers looking for parking. Thus, sensors underneath parking spots detecting free and occupied space could reduce traffic and save a city money at the same time, making the solution more appealing to a city government's bottom line. It's a small innovation but the payoff could be huge while simultaneously improving the quality of life and attractiveness of a city to potential talent.

"The infrastructure laid out in cities can be used for multiple things," Yusuf said. "There are many micro verticals in a city that can be reinvented by this combination of smart apps and infrastructure."

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Rachel King

Rachel King is a staff writer for ZDNet. Previously she worked for The Business Insider, FastCompany.com, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in San Francisco.