Building intelligent cities

This trend is taking shape in Washington, too. The federal government has endorsed virtualizing and consolidating data centers to save an estimated $18 billion. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra is encouraging federal agencies to adopt cloud applications to cut costs and make IT operations more efficient. Cities, which are increasingly exploring creative solutions to be more efficient and deliver essential services more seamlessly, are well positioned to make a similar move.

Cities are systems of systems. Historically, each system has been operated by a department – traffic, police, fire, parks and recreation. Making cities smarter requires that data from all of these systems be connected and monitored for the benefit of the whole city. In New York, building department records are now made available to the fire department, helping firefighters better understand potential risks in burning buildings. San Francisco’s Parks and Recreation Department has an online tool to help people find community gardens and become active.

Today, cities have a unique opportunity to install new technologies that will make them more intelligent and more efficient. They can then much more easily monitor street traffic, hospital readiness, police-car locations, water flows and weather patterns. They can create localized weather maps that forecast dangerous mudslides. They can analyze data about crime to reschedule police patrols or about accidents to install new traffic signals and light patterns. City residents and businesses can even use some of this embedded intelligence to inform and reduce their water and energy usage.

More importantly, cities can begin to correlate data that previously remained isolated in professional silos. Geospatial mapping lets cities investigate childhood asthma clusters with heavy traffic and air quality. The effects of policies can be assessed more accurately. Intelligent cities can be equipped with a command center with video walls that can display real-time pictures and graphics of troubles ranging from traffic jams, broken water mains, crimes and air quality.

Making cities smarter requires installing new sensors that monitor critical infrastructure. With Wi-Fi networks connecting them, bridges can alert engineers to a problem. Water pipes can identify a leak before the sidewalk is flooded. City officials can see far more of what is occurring than was ever possible before. They can see consequences that may be invisible to commanders on the ground. They can manage and prevent crises, and in the long run save significant taxpayer dollars.

Data from these sensors also enable more efficient use of existing physical infrastructure. For example, smart traffic management can reduce congestion at a fraction of the cost of building a new highway, which helps improve the quality of travel for residents. With a mobile device many commuters can now see exactly when the next bus or train is arriving. In many cities global positioning and Wi-Fi makes innovative car-sharing and bike-sharing popular alternatives for getting around.

New technology trends are becoming much more practical and affordable for cities of all sizes. Cloud computing can decrease the infrastructure requirements for a wide range of cities, providing a simplified and cost-effective alternative for managing their systems.

Intelligent cities can use modern analytics to take a much more comprehensive view of what’s happening. Information and communication technologies let cities look at things they couldn’t see before. Analyzing appropriately secured and anonymous cell-phone use and activity at Wi-Fi hotspots over the course of a week gives planners insights to how people are using public space. We can’t solve problems well without good data, but now we have the data.

Much like the federal government, cities cannot meet 21st century challenges with 20th century operations. Cities can benefit from integrating IT solutions to handle the ever-growing and complex challenges they face while also being resourceful about their funds. By doing so, they can help empower their residents to do the same.

Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator of the National Building Museum, and Mark Cleverley, director of Strategy for IBM's Global Government Industry, are participating in today’s “Intelligent Cities Forum” at the National Building Museum.


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