Urban Pulse: The State of Smart Cities Today (and Tomorrow)

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

An array of battery-powered, wireless sensors scattered in six types of tree beds in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood collect data on soil moisture. The idea is to understand which trees have better potential for rain water absorption and will help prevent sewage overflow in the former industrial wasteland that’s now transforming into a hip, family-oriented neighborhood.

“The sewage system in this neighborhood often overflows during heavy rains, sending sewage into a canal located in the neighborhood. It’s a big problem in the area,” says Jessica Califano, head of marketing for Temboo, the startup that built the Internet of Things (IoT) system to measure soil moisture data in Gowanus.

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Temboo’s sensors will transmit the soil moisture data to its IoT platform via gateway devices that local residents have volunteered to host in their apartments. These devices connect to the residents’ Wi-Fi to receive and upload data to Temboo’s IoT platform. “Our platform compares soil moisture data with weather data, such as amount of rain in the area, and provides insights on which tree is collecting how much water,” says Califano.

Gowanus is not alone. Local government authorities in several cities are using IoT devices to capture and share data about almost every aspect of urban life, such as water quality, humidity levels, traffic, parking spaces, and safety. Manhattan, for instance, has installed roadside sensors along a 2-mile stretch in Midtown and in about 8,000 vehicles to sense vehicular traffic and the timing of traffic lights, as part of a trial program to reduce road injuries and deaths. San Diego has added intelligent sensors to more than 4,000 streetlights across the city to monitor vehicular and pedestrian traffic, track available parking spaces, detect crime, and anticipate severe weather warnings.

Partnerships Shaping Cities

The pursuit of smart city technologies is turning urban areas into giant data factories that city leaders can leverage to provide better services. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs—attracted by the potential to create companies while also addressing real-world urban challenges—are emerging as crucial front-runners in digital city innovation. “It’s a huge opportunity. Projects are exciting and large scale,” explains Califano.

The pursuit of smart city technologies is turning urban areas into giant data factories that city leaders can leverage to provide better services.

A number of cities are responding by creating an underlying support infrastructure that enables smart city start-ups to get into place faster. Take New York’s The Grid, for example. Launched by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and urban innovation non-profit CIV:LAB, it aims to help connect tech companies, academia, and local tech leaders as they work together to address a city’s challenges in housing, transportation, education, safety, health, and environmental and waste management.

According to Simon Sylvester-Chaudhuri, co-founder and executive director of Civ:Lab, urban areas transforming into data-enabled cities like New York need platforms such as The Grid to bring stakeholders together. “Various stakeholders are working on identifying problems the cities are facing, solving them, and scaling them. The community is so big, vibrant, and diverse that we need a platform to bring them all together,” he says.

“For me, smart cities are about the communities that make them up and, for me, it’s harder to find a more diverse, intelligent, collaborative and dedicated place than New York.”

—Simon Sylvester-Chaudhuri, co-founder and executive director, Civ:Lab

New York, he argues, is a fascinating use case for cities. “We don’t have old infrastructure like European cities, but we have old infrastructure as the premier mega city of the 20th century,” he says. But newness is not a parameter for defining a smart city. “For me, smart cities are about the communities that make them up and, for me, it’s harder to find a more diverse, intelligent, collaborative and dedicated place than New York.”

Finding the Funding

Plugging smart city startups into the community is a great start, but they can’t survive without a steady flow of funds. Entrepreneurs need to confront the question of how to raise money and build scalable models, says Sylvester-Chaudhuri. According to him, the biggest challenges are “lack of capita for tech projects” and “shortage of pilots and demos that can be scalable.” ‘Tech is all about scalability,” he explains, “and that means the financial models that underwrite it, too.”

That’s not all. Several other complex issues remain, such as keeping up with the breakneck pace of the tech world. “I think you will see the curve of technology and deployment dip and then rise again,” says Sylvester-Chaudhuri. He expects new technologies to “make it easier for users,” but create challenges for some stakeholders, such as policy makers. “[They] must not only prepare for these new solutions, but be agile enough to evolve with the technology itself,” he explains.

He is right. Despite the learning curve, the smart city market is projected to be worth $1.4 trillion within the next six years, according to CB Insights. These investments in digital infrastructure, as Sylvester-Chaudhuri points out, “will lead to several innovative solutions” and a continuous flow of data stream that will enable city leaders to keep a finger on the pulse of all urban systems. And this data stream will determine what cities—and lives of their residents—will look like tomorrow.