Solving Cities

How can the U.S. embrace smart cities?

Posting in Cities

Several factors are holding back the U.S. from implementing more smart cities technologies. Find out how the U.S. can turn this around to embrace smart cities.

The implementation of smart cities technology has a large economic and sustainable upside.

Smart cities have advanced technologies that aim to move people faster, save energy, connect people, and generally make all city services -- from healthcare to public safety -- more interactive and efficient. The market for implementing these technologies in cities could be to the tune of $1.2 trillion, says Bruce Katz, Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

With 83 percent of the Americans living in metropolitan areas, investing in smart cities seems like it should be ripe in the U.S. In a post on Fast Company, Katz wonders why smart cities aren't blossoming in the U.S. like they are in places like China, South Korea, and Germany.

The most important barrier to U.S. leadership may be institutional fragmentation. Unlike the sale of new iPhones or Kindles (which favor innovative design, creative branding and the purchasing power of well-off consumers), the growth of smart cities demands strategic execution at the municipal and metropolitan scale and a close working relationship between business, government, and the broader citizenry.

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An excess of municipal governments (and the general absence of metropolitan governments) means that there is no “one stop shop” for the application of innovative technologies in American cities and metropolitan areas. The public institutions which make decisions about transport are different from the ones that make decisions about education or water. These separate entities rarely coordinate with each other to integrate technology (and share information) between themselves or with utilities and other private or quasi public entities.  Federal and state governments rarely act to overcome this fragmentation by using strong mandates or healthy incentives to spur the widespread application of technology.

Basically, bureaucracy and fragmented government agencies combined with uncoordinated regional planning discourage smart cities in the U.S. We'll need smarter government before we can get smart cities. But how?

  • Smart federal investment: "The federal and state governments should become smart investors. Federal transportation law, for example, could reward metropolitan areas that embrace congestion pricing or allocate transportation resources based on the integration of housing, transport and employment data."
  • Coordinate government agencies: "States could require fragmented municipal governments to establish common platforms for shared services or challenges. All these efforts would trigger markets for the application of smart technology."
  • Public-private partnerships: "At the city or metropolitan scale, intermediaries are needed to negotiate across the fragmented landscape of governmental and private entities. An example of this is Amsterdam Innovation Motor (AIM), a public private partnership in the city of Amsterdam that is catalyzing the creation of a smart grid and wide-scale adoption of smart metering."

So far private companies are leading the way on smart cities. So for now we'll have to be content with a "city-in-a-box" until the U.S. government gets smart on cities.

Photo: Sarmu/Flickr

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure