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Speed bumps on the way to smart cities

Illustration of a pothole with a circuit board peeking through.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NEW YORK — The journey to smart cities is off to a slower start than predicted, with many projects stuck in pilot phases and cities unable to find the skilled workers to keep them going.

Why it matters: The vision of smart cities is to use data, sensors and software applications to allow cities to be more responsive to residents' needs (like detecting when trash cans are full) and more environmentally sustainable (like detecting water leaks in underground pipes).

The hurdles to municipal adoption of these technologies — often referred to generally as the “internet of things” (IoT) — were a topic of conversation at the Internet of Things Consortium conference in New York on Tuesday. Here’s what’s slowing it down.

1. Pilot purgatory

  • Most cities wade into smart-city applications slowly with “proof of concept” trials to test out a technology before signing a longer-term contract.
  • But those pilot project phases are getting longer across the board, per 451 Research. That leads to a state of limbo a lot of IoT firms call “pilot purgatory.”
  • Pilot projects are useful for getting a project or idea off the ground, says Beverly Rider, Hitachi’s SVP and chief commercial officer. “But there’s rarely a plan for what happens when the trial phase is over.”

2. Data silos

  • "A city isn’t one entity, it’s a collection of agencies working autonomously,” said Samir Saini, former chief information officer for New York City.
  • Big city governments in particular are prone to communication breakdowns between departments. When data isn’t shared between agencies, efficiencies are lost.

3. Security fears

  • Data security concerns are still the top hurdle to the adoption of initiatives involving connected devices, including smart-city deployments, per 451 Research.
  • According to research released this week by Parks Associates, 63% of the general public are concerned about cybersecurity, and 71% of people with smart devices are concerned about cybersecurity.
  • Skepticism over how companies working with city governments are using citizen data can slow down the process of getting public buy-in for projects that involve data collection.

4. Worker shortage

  • City governments have a hard time attracting workers with data science and back-end technology skills, because they’re competing for that talent with Big Tech firms that pay much more.
  • New York City faces a perennial staff shortage for smart-city projects. “After a company installs the thing, workers need to maintain it,” said Commissioner Gregg Bishop of NYC’s Department of Small Business Services.

The big picture: Adoption will accelerate as cities replace or upgrade aging critical infrastructure, such as bridges, with sensors embedded into the construction, Saini said.

  • Sensors and energy-management technologies in buildings are likely to become more common as cities adopt aggressive emission-reduction goals.

Go deeper... Special report: The human hurdles to smart cities