photo illustration of city with smart technology connections

Urban-sensing networks can include sensors, weather instruments, pollution measurement equipment, cameras and microphones to monitor air quality, street noise and traffic patterns, among other factors.

NCSL Report Examines Rewards, Realities of Smart Communities

By Glen Andersen | Feb. 15, 2021 | State Legislatures Magazine

A confluence of new technologies in the communications, transportation and energy sectors offers policymakers the opportunity to create smart communities that use data, sensors, smart devices and data processing to improve safety, livability and economic opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our reliance on remote systems and has dramatically underscored the importance of having “smart” infrastructure. “Ironically, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has illustrated in real time how critical robust technology is to education, health care, commerce, communications, government and entertainment,” Utah Representative Stephen Handy (R) says. “The ubiquitous deployment of technology in telecommunications, transportation and energy is needed now more than ever.”

Creating thriving communities that are also resilient in the face of challenges such as the pandemic can be difficult, however. Determining which technologies will best benefit a community and complement its existing and future plans requires significant consideration and thoughtful analysis. To help state legislators better understand these opportunities, NCSL has just released a new report that explores the possibilities and challenges of smart technology.

What Is a Smart Community?

A smart community can improve its residents’ quality of life in several ways. Using a variety of data, communication devices and sensors, smart technology can automatically warn cars of pedestrians; adjust traffic signals to optimize traffic flow; adjust streetlights and public lighting based on the presence of cars or people; notify the city of lighting and signal failures; allow residents to easily report sidewalk, street or public infrastructure safety concerns; notify authorities when firearms are discharged; or provide driverless vehicle transportation options.

In the past, a city’s infrastructure was built to accommodate peak demand, explains former Washington Representative Jeff Morris (D). Now, he says, “predictive and artificial intelligence will be able to adapt supply and demand to utilize a right-sized efficiency for roads, sewer, water, electricity, telecom and more.”

Successful smart communities enhance the lives of residents by responding to their needs and desires. Smartness is not about the technology and efficiency; it is about using technology and data to improve quality of life. Rather than focusing on where a shiny new smart technology can be used, policymakers and planners can be more effective if they determine a community problem that needs to be solved, then select the technology that best addresses it.

The smart community concept is evolving as the number of communities using smart technologies continues to grow. Although most communities do not have all the resources and knowledge to build and manage the many technologies available for reaching smart community goals all at once, many are laying the groundwork for future smart community growth.

The effort to become smarter and more connected requires state and local governments to consider a variety of factors when selecting and implementing technologies. These include:

  • Determining needs.
  • Creating a plan.
  • Leveraging opportunities with local businesses and community stakeholders.
  • Coordinating technologies across many interconnected sectors and offices.
  • Navigating state and local regulations.
  • Doing the most with limited resources.

What Lawmakers Can Do

Policymakers need to be as “nimble as the companies developing these rapidly changing technologies,” says Colorado Senator Jeff Bridges (D), “to ensure we are finding the right solutions for the people we represent.”

Lawmakers can help communities wishing to adopt smart technologies in several ways. They can:

  • Create a task force or advisory group to identify areas where state policy can assist in smart community development.
  • Set data management, usage and cybersecurity standards.
  • Streamline procurement rules to facilitate testing and implementation of evolving technologies.
  • Promote the expansion of broadband, including fiber networks, through funding and legislation.
  • Offer grants and financing options to support community innovation.
  • Create tax incentives to encourage the development of certain technologies.
  • Establish guidelines for public-private partnerships, or P3s, cooperative arrangements in which government and businesses work together to complete a project or provide services, or both.

The P3 Possibilities

The need to quickly respond to COVID-19 has led cities and states across the country to reevaluate budgets, and otherwise rethink how best to invest scarce resources in helping communities recover from the outbreak. This presents an opportunity to leverage expertise in the telecommunications, energy and transportation sectors through P3s, which can assist in deploying broadband and wireless communications, as well as smart grid infrastructure and traffic management technologies. These efforts can enhance efficiency, save money and deliver better services to residents and businesses.

P3s can provide needed financing and technical knowledge, but they can be complex and may involve the use of data collected from the community. It’s important that state legislatures have guidelines to help communities understand the pros and cons of the many options available through these partnerships. Some examples include:

  • The city of Philadelphia created a road map for its smart city efforts that details a few P3s the city entered into for smart city applications, including creating a bikeshare program by partnering with BCycle, Bicycle Transit Systems and other groups. The city is also partnering with a company called Intersection to install digital information kiosks.
  • In Ohio, the 33 Smart Mobility Corridor is a 35-mile stretch of smart highway along U.S. Route 33 used for testing autonomous and connected vehicles. The project is a partnership among the state Department of Transportation, the cities of Columbus and Marysville, and Honda. The automaker is using the project to test 200 of its connected SUVs, which can receive signals allowing them to take corrective action to avoid collisions, and what is being touted as “the world’s most connected intersection” in Marysville.
  • The Utah Department of Transportation has used P3s to share and trade fiber-optic systems. As the state builds fiber corridors, it constructs excess capacity, which is then traded to private telecommunications companies for greater capacity along their corridors. The state also makes highway rights-of-way available, for a trade value, to these private entities. Through the partnerships, the state has used 1,000 miles of state-built fiber-optics to leverage an additional 1,700 miles of private fiber, often to very rural areas of the state, an added value of more than $55 million. “Public-private partnerships with such companies as Panasonic to develop the nation’s most-advanced network of ‘smart roadways’ is rapidly advancing,” Handy, the Utah representative, says. “Additionally, working with the regulated public utility, Rocky Mountain Power, the legislature has passed legislation to advance a $50 million investment in EV infrastructure with the aim of leading the nation.”

State-level policies or guidelines can be helpful for communities that may not have the expertise or resources to properly analyze agreements to determine unintended negative consequences. They can also be helpful to larger communities and vendors by harmonizing actions across the state. Following clear and transparent data privacy standards, developed with buy-in from a range of stakeholders, could encourage greater private investment in smart communities, thereby lowering the financial burden on public sector partners.

Trading Benefits for Some Rights

Receiving smart technology benefits sometimes requires foregoing privacy rights, and policymakers can facilitate the discussion around the trade-offs. Communities need to consider very carefully the rights they may be giving up to receive the benefits smart technology offers.

The successful development of smart communities requires the inclusion of all stakeholders and broad public approval. Access to smart community tools is affected by the digital divide, which must be factored into development discussions to avoid digital gentrification based on socioeconomic status, language, age group and ability. “When considering the concept of smart communities, state lawmakers will be faced with critical decisions as they weigh the public good,” Handy says. “That will be the challenge going forward—to ensure all communities have access on an equal basis to the benefits of a smart community for the betterment of lifestyles and quality of life.”

The creation of Chicago’s “Array of Things” urban-sensing project—a network of sensors, weather instruments, pollution measurement equipment, cameras, and microphones—demonstrates the value of including and educating the community. Planners did extensive outreach, explaining that the microphones and cameras would be used for recording street noise and traffic and would not record conversations or use facial recognition. They noted that images would be processed and deleted and only aggregate data, without the ability to distinguish individuals, would be collected. Most important, they explained how a panel of experts would manage the data held at the Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research facility operated by the University of Chicago. After two years, the project’s data is now accessible to researchers, businesses and advocacy groups.

Technology Changing Quickly

Rapid advancements in communications, transportation and energy offer communities a variety of options for improving livability, safety and economic development. But these changes also require preparation. “We need to be thinking ahead and planning for change,” says Bridges, the Colorado senator. “Considering autonomous vehicles and driverless cars—what if the price of a driverless ride falls below bus ticket costs, for example?”

With so many choices and quickly changing technology, communities face greater risks of investing in varied solutions that are not complementary or in pursuing technologies that are soon outdated. Ultimately, by creating policies that support and guide the planning process, lawmakers can play an instrumental role in developing successful smart communities in their states.

Glen Andersen is a program director in NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.

Additional Resources