A recent report in InformationWeek discusses IT’s role in the planning of future cities.
With a population of 7 billion and growing, there’s increased pressure on municipal infrastructures and services in cities across the world. This changing demographic presents a civic management challenge of unprecedented scope and complexity, one that requires innovative technologies and well-conceived implementations to succeed.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, local officials in the New York metro area are rethinking everything from building codes to public transportation. Technologies woven into buildings, highways, rail systems, electricity grids, water treatment plants, school systems and hospitals are in need of upgrade and investment, here and in many other cities across the country.
In the report, these burgeoning population centers, characterized not just by their size but the sophistication of their infrastructures, are referred to as “Future Cities.” The site recently completed a survey that reveals much about where U.S. cities are in their IT planning and implementation, which technologies are expected to make the greatest impact and how businesses stand to benefit.
InformationWeek’s Future Cities Survey, completed in October by 198 municipal IT pros, reveals that most are still in the early stages of these efforts. Only 7% of survey respondents describe their city strategies as progressive and well conceived. More than five times that many, 38%, describe those strategies as poor or nonexistent. Half say their cities are somewhere in-between—well planned in some areas but not others.
As a starting point, metropolitan IT teams are looking to make government run more smoothly. The most-mentioned area of initial focus, cited by 39% of survey respondents, is government operations. That includes the systems and applications used for the business of government, such as 311 and other IT-enabled public services.
Other areas of Future Cities activity are public safety and crime prevention (30%), communications infrastructure (28%) and transportation systems (26%). New York City’s recently unveiled Domain Awareness System, co-developed with Microsoft and to be marketed to other cities, incorporates aspects of all three areas in a citywide surveillance platform—to the chagrin of privacy watchdogs.
The most sought-after benefits of city IT planning and implementation are more efficient delivery of public services (66%), improved infrastructure (44%) and lower costs (44%). More intriguing is that 36% of respondents to the survey see Future Cities technology investments improving quality of life for citizens. For example, the city of Santa Monica, Calif., has deployed a real-time traffic management system to ease congestion and open and close parking spaces as necessary. Commuters there spend fewer hours staring at brake lights.
Which technologies have the greatest potential to improve municipal operations? Mobility and bandwidth top the list. Mobile devices and apps were rated as having very high or extremely high potential by 71% of respondents, followed closely by broadband networks (70%) and wireless services (62%). Many cities are already taking steps to accommodate smartphone-carrying citizens and visitors. San Francisco has created a device-agnostic framework that it uses to develop mobile apps for city services and information, and New York is converting old payphone booths into touchscreen kiosks that double as Wi-Fi hotspots.
Municipal IT pros also see potential in information and automation systems for transportation (63% of survey respondents designated them as having very high or extremely high potential) and in cameras and other public safety devices (58%). Other technologies respondents rated highly are virtualization, water management and conservation systems, energy-efficient buildings, and smart meters and other monitoring devices.
The biggest obstacle to moving ahead, by far, is finding the money to pay for it. Cash-strapped local governments don’t have the revenue to invest in nice-to-haves like predictive analytics for crime prevention or sensor networks for water management. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents point to limited funding as a top challenge to Future Cities initiatives. Municipal CIOs will have to make a strong business case to get projects funded.
Other challenges respondents identified include political leadership (cited by 35%), bureaucracy (34%) and outdated IT infrastructure (27%).
Businesses have a stake in the outcome of these and other Future Cities projects. The most frequently cited business benefit, mentioned by 69% of survey respondents, is access to improved municipal infrastructure and services. Other potential benefits include lower business costs (cited by 45%) and making companies more competitive (38%).