What is a Small Smart City


Over the past 10 years, much has been written about Smarter Cities, where the confluence of massive human and machine produced data with advanced analytics potentially allow societies to flourish in ways never before possible.  Smart Cities can provide their residents improved services and life experiences in areas of public safety, public works, transportation, health, education organizations, and social equity.


Smarter Cities have been thought to be attractive counters to both natural growth and the pervasive population migrations toward a growing number of mega Cities, where key services are stretched and where societal issues are growing.  Until recently, only the larger and more prosperous cities could afford to embark on the path toward these benefits.  The choices of technologies were numerous, expensive, and often a challenge to integrate.  Providers such as IBM, ATT, and other large ICT businesses were augmented by many smaller, niche companies providing specialized services such as Shot Spotter, city service apps and pervasive internet to increase connectivity across the range of government, business and citizen activities.  The sheer number of potential technologies and providers made it difficult for cities to remain on an optimal solution roadmap without wasting resources or time.


In the United States, however, nearly 80 percent of the people live in smaller communities where Smarter technologies were thought to be out of reach.  Limited skill sets and financial resources have traditionally been formidable barriers to the necessary investments in time and energy for long term Smarter transformations.


Paradoxically, smaller cities have some inherent advantages toward Smart City transformations.  They tend to be less complex, and as the technologies have improved and become more affordable, a small town can implement its solution more nimbly and with less risk precisely due to their small size.  Solution roadmaps are simpler, smaller departments can coordinate to integrate data more quickly, consensus can often be easier to build and the benefits can be seen more quickly than large Smart City implementations which may drag on for years.


Some of these Small Smart City near term benefits of data integration and analysis are:

  1. More effective, forward deployment of scarce law enforcement resources to probable crime hotspots, based on predictive correlation between past patterns, weather and community events among others.
  2. More responsive Departments of Public Works, based on predictive analytics of asset usage data, failure rates based on weather, and engaged citizens who can report city infrastructure issues, such as potholes or service outages as they happen, using smart phone technologies and apps which record issues and route them seamlessly to the proper response teams for resolution,
  3. More secure, “in place” living solutions for the city’s elderly through use of inexpensive, smart homes sensors which alert families or care givers to temperature abnormalities or breaks in daily routines such as meal preparation.
  4. Closer ties with the business community through sharing of appropriate data which is attractive to businesses, providing the community with better food choices, health care, and employment opportunities, to name just a few.


Small Smart Cities have their place not only in the U.S. but anywhere in the world where there are social challenges due to uneven distributions of information between needs and resources.




Why Small Smart Cities


When the United States was young and growing, cities were founded based on availability of natural resources—access to harbors, transportation routes, mineral deposits, favorable agricultural conditions, etc.  These physical assets gave early cities competitive advantage, attracting more people and talent to the point where they grew.  In the U.S., citizen governments were the norm.  Many City services, such as fire departments were often provided by volunteer citizens. 


But as cities grew, specialization of services grew with them.  And with that growth came a corresponding deterioration of relationship and accountability between city governments and their citizens.  A sense of “we vs them” began to pervade the cultures of the Cities.  This shift of accountability from the citizens to the government for the long term well being of the city has its share of maladies, however. 


As cities grew and became more complex, city departments became as large as many small towns themselves.  Consider the size of New York’s police, sanitation, or public works departments (numbers?). Access to vital information also diverged during this evolution in city growth.  This manifested itself in two key areas.  First inter-departmental coordination and integration became problematic.  More technology to reintegrate has been only part of the solution.  Second, there grew an increasing divide between the people, and those in the government responsible for serving them.


Unequal access to information helped create classes of “haves” and “have nots”.  Societal inequities were fueled by lack of information, education, and empowerment, leading to increased disengagement of the average citizen.  The well being of the city was now up to the government, and the average citizen became passive in action, while ever more demanding for services against dwindling city resources.   In fact, in “Small Town USA” since the recession of 2008, economic and social are still problems, with many of these communities struggling to survive 10 years later.


Small Smart Cities are opportunities to reverse these negative trends in city experiences and well being. They offer places to work, stay, live, and play.  More equitable access to city information helps empower citizens to reduce passivity, accept responsibility, and lead courageously.  If information is power, then distributing City information more equitably can reduce social inequities and ultimately social injustice, leading to more sustainable communities.


As citizens feel more empowered, they are more likely to share in accountability for their city and contribute to its success.  In effect, they may integrate with the city government, sharing responsibility with their elected officials for their cities.  This societal reversal not only attracts new businesses, but a new workforce as well.  According to a 2016 IBM white paper on the workforce of the digital age, future cities will compete not on the basis of their ports, rivers, or other attributes of the physical world, but on their workforce’s competitiveness in the digital world.  Therefore, attracting a critical mass of digital citizenry may be a key component of a Smart City’s future.  But, where to begin?