As described in this Forbes article: “Smart cities bring together infrastructure and technology to improve the quality of life of citizens and enhance their interactions with the urban environment.”
I first read about the concept of smart cities when doing research on a company called Current, powered by GE (which is actually no longer owned by GE as of April 2019 – it is now owned by American Industrial Partners). I found it fascinating that Current could use IoT to transform street lighting into a connected digital infrastructure for collecting data, gathering insights and providing useful apps (currentbyge.com).
Upon further research I discovered that IoT is being used across cities in a variety of ways, including waste management, public transport, free city-wide Wi-Fi and more. Some cities have succeeded in their efforts, and others have failed. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to focus on why some have failed and what I’ve learned is being overlooked when initiating these smart city projects.
When attempting to implement smart city projects, many cities focus on the technology itself rather than the end goal and the users. Cities get caught up in the newest IoT tech available and forget to ask the questions “Do we need this? How will this work? Who will this help?” City leaders also forget to involve both internal and external users in the process. IoT can be very expensive to build into infrastructure, and if you are not training your city employees nor telling your citizens how to use it, that money goes to waste. A proper stakeholder analysis should be conducted each time an IoT solution is considered. Stakeholders would almost always include citizens, city staff, government leaders, government IT staff and 3rd party IoT platform providers.
“For an IoT city to truly become smart, people and their behavior and engagement with IoT solutions must be integral parts of the solution design and implementation strategy. Human factors, in relation to users both internal (municipal workforce) and external (citizens), do matter in and beyond initial deployment of an IoT solution, as well as in the use of the data generated by IoT solutions.” (Chua and Xiang, Gartner April 2018)
The city of Philadelphia attempted to use a waste management IoT solution but failed to meet its expectations of improving the quality of life of citizens after implementation. Across the city, sensors were placed into trash cans to track when they were full. The sensors were supposed to help the city determine how many workers and trucks they needed to collect trash and how often. Theoretically, this should make it easier to keep trash cans empty and the city clean, but the city failed to consider several factors:
- External human factors – dirty or broken handles on trash cans resulted in people placing trash around the trash cans rather than in them. Thus, trash would build up on the sidewalk and not be collected for days since the sensors couldn’t detect it. The sensors also weren’t equipped to detect when trash was starting to smell. This caused problems when trash cans weren’t yet full so weren’t being emptied for days, even though they started to smell badly. This affected the citizens in a negative way. The city should have asked citizens for input and communicated how the IoT technology was being used in trash cans.
- Internal human factors – the city failed to properly train and communicate with the workers and relevant city staff. If the workers knew what kind of impact a broken trash can handle could have on the process, they would have known to report it right away.
Summary: you can implement as many IoT technology solutions in your city as you want, but the outcomes will vary significantly depending on how well you communicate with both internal and external users. Citizens should be asked for input and also communicated with so they know how technologies are meant to benefit them. Workers need to understand the purpose of the technology and know that several factors can affect its efficacy.
What do you think are some other important factors for cities to consider when implementing IoT solutions? Do you think citizens benefit from smart city initiatives?
- Ellsmoor, James. “Smart Cities: The Future of Urban Development.” Forbes, 19 May 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/05/19/smart-cities-the-future-of-urban-development/#16b0d522f900. Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.
- Chua, Godfrey. Xiang, Milly. “IoT Connected Smart Cities: Human Factors Matter.” Gartner, 27 April 2018.