Smart Cities: Building Tomorrow’s Infrastructure

From Spokane to Las Vegas to Atlanta, small and big cities across the nation are partnering with utilities and vendors to adopt innovative solutions to provide more efficient and improved services to their citizens, be it water or energy or broadband.

Smart Cities Week

The Smart Cities Council holds two Smart Cities Week conferences each year: one at Washington, D.C. in fall focused on “what’s working now” and the other in spring in Silicon Valley to highlight “what’s happening next.” At last week’s conference in Silicon Valley, speakers addressed:

  • Growing city-utility partnership to usher smart technology
  • Managing sustainability and resources for best outcomes
  • Building smart water infrastructure such as using acoustic technology to monitor pipelines
  • Deploying 5G and small cell technology for smart city services


Smart Cities at a glance

As more and more people flock to cities, they are facing greater challenges. Worldwide, there are 37 “megacities,” or cities with populations greater than 10 million individuals. To manage resources and provide efficient services, local governments are adopting “smart city” solutions.

  • The concept of the “smart city” emerged two decades ago. A smart city is one that utilizes information and technology, in hopes of improving the function and efficiencies of large urban cities while addressing social ills.
  • Smart city solutions involve energy, infrastructure and transportation, safety and security, e-governance, and information and communication technology.
  • According to the 2017 Smart Cities Index by the European smart parking service provider EasyPark Group, the top five ‘smartest’ cities in order were Copenhagen, Singapore, Stockholm, Zurich and Boston. San Francisco ranked 7th, and New York came in 24th place.

Driver-less vehicles. Sensor-laden street lighting. Smart water.

Cities across the nation are adopting innovative technology, transforming into “smart cities.”

Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley, a bi-annual conference organized by the Smart Cities Council, brings together leaders from government and industry to share best practices about programs and pilots around the country and even the world, that relate to smart technology.

“We’re trying to alert cities on the best practices and allow to meet with other cities who have been there before and share lessons learned, “Jesse Berst, the founder and chair of the Smart Cities Council, which began in 2012.  “It’s a really exciting time in the sector as we’re going from the early adopters to early mainstream, and so it’s really important that cities get it right.”

Icons of Infrastructure spoke with five key speakers and panel members that attended the conference, who shared their vision of the smart cities of the future, the trends in smart city technology, the initiatives around the country they’re most excited about, and the challenges of making cities “smart.”

The Evolving Utility-City Partnership

Bob Borzillo, vice president smart cities business development, Itron

The positive momentum I have recently experienced in the Smart Cities Council, is the partnerships forming between the electric utilities and the cities and communities they serve.  Itron has been providing solutions to electric, gas, water utilities and cities both large and small, with  solutions that help them better manage energy and water. The opportunity we discussed during the panel at Smart Cities Week, is centered around utility-city partnerships and specifically the Urbanova Smart City project in Spokane, WA. The breakthrough from my perspective is that, when it comes to smart cities, utilities are now being viewed as a key contributor in strategic plans for a city and communities.

Bob Borzillo

In the past, the city and utility relationship was focused primarily on providing electricity, gas, or water. Today, the utility industry is going through major transformation. Revenues are flat and not growing and investments are getting scrutinized during utility rate cases. Utilities have historically managed infrastructure and the electric grid in a safe, reliable and cost effective manner and many smart city initiatives involve deploying infrastructure which could be performed and managed by their local utility.

Advances in open and standards based communications networks, whether it’s a smart and connected streetlight solution or a utility advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) solution, these platforms can now be leveraged for other use cases within the city. This presents other opportunities for utilities to seek new business models where they could potentially garner new revenues through managing streetlight infrastructure or offering other digital services within the city. By having a leadership role in a city/community overall smart city plans, utilities can strengthen their relationships while pursuing new revenues.

Through these strategic utility – city partnerships, cities become more livable, workable and sustainable to the benefit of its citizens.

The City of Spokane, Washington Credit: Urbanova
What ‘Smart’ Means

Don Jacobson, enterprise project manager, City of Las Vegas, Nevada

The term smart city has been around like 26 years now, and if you ask anyone in the room they’re going to have a different opinion of what that means. To me, when a city is smart it’s like the dictionary definition of being smart: quick-witted, intelligent– and getting things done in a quick manner.

And the way that they do that is with sensors. In the past, you would have to send out a person to observe and record. Now a sensor can do that 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And they can go to multiple locations and all come back to a central location and give you the information you need for situational awareness to deploy resources effectively and efficiently.

And that’s exactly what we’re doing in the city of Las Vegas. We’re deploying sensors throughout the city to monitor, collect data, analyze that data and report back on our findings throughout all of the departments, so they can operate more effectively.

Don Jacobson

Whether you’re an individual or an organization, or you’re a city like Las Vegas, or even the planet, resources are all finite. And economics and science is focused on the efficient use of finite resources.

So simply put, being smart means being sustainable, which in the case of Las Vegas, is very important.

We exist in a desert environment. We have a couple million people that live in the valley, and 44 million a year that fly in or drive into the valley that visit us. All of them are consuming resources, whether it be water, gasoline or other types of energy. And for us to be able to do that, over the long term, we are going to need to be as efficient as possible with managing those resources. So that’s where city government comes in play in that we are the ones best suited to gather data — traffic, people, economic activity — and do something with that data to make wise decisions that will not only enable Las Vegas to thrive economically now but to continue to thrive for decades and generations to come.

We’ve done multiple pilots with several different vendors in in our innovation district. One example is with video analytics to analyze the behavior of drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists at intersections and along blocks. We have different vendors that we have partnered with on those pilots. One is Hitachi, another one is Motionloft. Each of them have a different approach to how they do the video analytics and we wanted to compare and contrast those to see ultimately which one was the best fit for what we wanted to accomplish. The innovation district serves as a microcosm for the entire valley, where we can do these things in a small controlled space but being really close to reality as possible.

Data right now dictates our life decisions, right? We have little choice but to rely on that data for everything — from making airline reservations, to determining what’s the best commute to get to work, to ordering goods online. Right now, much of that data resides with the Googles and Facebooks and Apples of the world, so it’s important for governments to have continual dialogue with them.

Las Vegas autonomous shuttle pilot program and a pilot program event this past November. Photos: Courtesy city of Las Vegas, Nev.
The Shape of Water 

Andrew Lee, deputy director of Bellevue Utilities, Washington

The biggest needs that we face around the country, with water, is that there is a ton of aging infrastructure.  We have so much pipe infrastructure underneath the ground that has been neglected. Some of these pipes are leaking or failing, so there is an asset management issue we have.

Another big thing issue, more so in drier climates but even in the Northwest we talk a lot about, is water supply. This has come to head very recently in Washington state because of climate change.

Andrew Lee

 After doing our own self-assessment, we came up with three pillars where smart technologies will help us further our goals. The three pillars are advanced metering, asset management and predictive operations.

A lot of water departments are replacing customers’ meters with new wireless meters that will send out usage on a daily basis, so customers can look at that and it gives a lot of power to the customers. And part of the power is they know what their usage is, as opposed to finding it once every two months from a water bill. It also gives the ability for customers to see leaks on their side because you can see hour by hour how much water you’re using. And if you’re not using water at 3 a.m., and your meter is showing it’s going on, they will know they have a leak. So it’s a conservation measure. And that’s one tenet we decided to move ahead with advanced metering network, and we’re going to be doing that in 2019. We’re in the contracting portion right now.

The next is asset management, and we’re looking at it from the standpoint of proactively detecting where we have issues. And there are a ton of technologies we’re looking at. There are acoustic technologies that will listen, and will literally send sound waves through pipelines. Companies put devices that will generate a sound wave, find out how fast the sound wave moves through the pipeline and then compare the speed against what a new pipeline would be like. Based on whether it’s slower or faster, the device can sense that the pipeline is, say, 50 percent degraded or 75 percent degraded. Based on that type of technology, we’re able to now decide more proactively whether we should go ahead and replace pipelines.  Replacing pipelines are very labor intensive and hugely impactful to people to dig up a street, so if your pipeline has 20 years left in it, you don’t want to replace too early.

Another technology which I’ve been particularly intrigued by is from a satellite company called UTILIS. What they’re doing is they’re literally taking satellite images from up above in space and using a technology that came out of NASA. They used the technology during Mars exploration when they were trying to detect groundwater below the surface. So now we could use it to investigate where it might have leaks.

The last one is predictive operations. We’re primarily looking at this in terms of our storm water or wastewater system, where a lot of these operations are built off storm events. So being able to have technologies that can predict what type of issues you might face by taking weather information and plugging that into models gives us the ability to operate our systems a little differently.

Getting Ahead of the 5G Curve

 Geoff Arnold, CTO for Verizon Smart Communities

We have a slightly different approach from other vendors in this area. We are focusing on delivering cutting-edge solutions ourselves and we’re not partnering as much as other carriers are. That essentially allows us to work on smart city solutions which are really going to take advantage of the capabilities of the next generation of networks. Verizon is committed to a massive 5G investment across the country over the next few years.

Geoff Arnold

The poster child for the work we’re doing with 5G deployment with smart city solutions is Sacramento. It goes beyond simply deploying the network and deploying city services. We are strongly committed to a collaborative innovation program with Sacramento, so we are deploying STEM educational resources, and innovation. Because Sacramento, like any other city, is interested in not just in what kinds of new technologies Verizon can roll out, but what kind of economic activity and educational opportunities can be realized by these technologies. So we’re focusing very much on holistic approach, which involves the well-being of the entire city.

One of the themes of the conference is the implications of connected cities and eventually autonomous vehicles. Connected vehicles are going to depend on next generation cellular networks like 5G networks from companies like Verizon and others. So when cities think about how should they plan to accommodate the deployment of the networks, they need to realize that there are a wave of consumers that are expecting these services.

In my conversations over the last six months, cities are paranoid of becoming “Uberized.” By “Uberized,” I mean being hit by a completely unexpected blind-sighting economic force which changes many of their business models. When it comes to connecting vehicles, cities really want to get ahead of the curve.

The impact of the connected vehicle and the relationship between the connected vehicle and fast wireless networks is a very important theme, which is on the top of mind for me.

Getting Autonomous Vehicles on the Road

Peter Murray, director of Dense Networks and chair of City Networks Task Force

In order to create the autonomous vehicle, you’ve got to have a tremendous amount of software and technologies in the car. But once you’ve got a car capable of riding autonomously its got to communicate to the infrastructure. They call that V2I communications.

Peter Murray

Some of the trials are using the technology called DRSC that is effective but very expensive. Cities or the feds or somebody would have to fund literally trillions of dollars to build that type of network along the roadways. So the trials are using that, and some folks are thinking maybe that will be how they’ll build and get the first stages of this done, but most folks are thinking they are going to use 5G technology. And in order to use that technology the cities need to have dense networks that provide lots of reliable bandwidth and to that, they need to get the cellphone antennas closer to the users. And they call the technology “small cells.” The big rage right now is how cities are allowing small cell technology to be deployed; here’s lots of discussions about what the best practices  are. But we’re in the early stages of that.

One of my favorite cities is Atlanta because they have a very mature ecosystem of partners.  The corporate community, the government, some of the associations, the universities, they all collaborate. They have a mobility task force which has been focusing on wireless technologies for about four years now. That group include AT&T, IBM, and Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech actually hired a person to a full-time smart city director to work with Atlanta to process all the data and figure out the new methodologies.

The big project that’s very exciting in Atlanta is they created a smart corridor. On that, they are working on autonomous public transport, communications between the lights, and the V2I technologies. They got a huge federal grant for transportation improvement, and as part of that, they earmarked a few million dollars to build a fiber optic network along this corridor and other key places, which enable them to put the wireless technologies on the end of that fiber optic network. In my opinion, they’ve done all the right things to enable the next generation.

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