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The Smart Money Is on Embracing Smart Cities

At ESD, we began championing smart cities with gusto three years ago, though our roots with the concept go back even further. For example, we created the “Roadmap to d3 SmartCity” in the spring of 2014, which showcased our work on the Dubai Design District. A city is smart, we explained, when capital investments in human, social, built-environment, infrastructure, and technology fuel sustainable economic growth, support a high quality of life, manage resources wisely and provide open access to information. We researched more than 20 cities that resided near the top of the smart-city benchmarks — and at the time, unfortunately, Chicago was absent from that list.

That, in part, is why my eyes were opened by the recent Chicago Tribune article about Chicago’s push to transform itself into "the most data-driven government in the world." I applaud the corporate and academic partners — including City Digital, Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of Chicago, among others — who are on board to help the city realize its technological potential.

Like some cities, Chicago is short on resources and is in a tough financial spot. Adapting smart-city technology can help alleviate those problems. For example: When city electricians attach sensor boxes to municipal light poles this summer to measure air quality and to discover where rainwater collects, among other information they will gather, the data should result in energy-efficient solutions to a variety of problems, as the Tribune article suggests.

And that’s just the start.

Consider energy and water usage among citizens. What if they knew how much they were using each day — or even each minute? Presenting consumption information can change behavior. Digital displays in public spaces of buildings and on web-based dashboards allow users to access real-time information from any device. Residents can employ the information provided to influence their consumption and thus their utility bills.

Or think of a problem that afflicts many city residents: parking. A parking management system utilizes sensors, real-time data collection, and mobile phone-enabled automated payment systems that direct people to open parking spaces. These smart parking services reduce car emissions by mitigating the need for people to circle blocks or garages searching for a space to stop.

The return on investment for changes of these types — including ones affecting primarily government, the environment and more — can take anywhere from one year to more than a decade. But the wait will be worth it.

Building truly smart cities also requires smart buildings. Smart features can already be found in highly-efficient lighting and air conditioning systems, plumbing equipment, and even fire extinguishers and exit signs in these types of buildings. The next generation of smart devices, coming to market under the Internet of Things (IoT) banner, promises great improvements in wireless communication, battery-free operation, and a range of esoteric applications.

For example, just think of an occupant entering a building. A smart building will understand the occupant’s entrance and provide secure guidance to his or her location in the building. Elevator controls can signal the respective zone for which the occupant is destined, and the associated air conditioning and lighting controls in that zone can be automatically activated to accommodate the occupancy.

These intelligent buildings (ones which unify a variety of smart devices, allowing them to communicate with each other) teem with benefits. They improve operational efficiency, reduce utility consumption, improve financial performance, enhance the occupant experience, and offer sustainable competitive advantage.

Let’s hope Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration keep pushing the initiatives described by the Tribune — along with others — to put Chicago on a path to a better future. The smart money is on them.