Future Cities: IT Priorities For Urban Transformation

City planners and their IT teams are setting big goals -- and facing big challenges -- in the development of tech-enabled "Future Cities," our survey results show.
IBM Smarter Cities Challenge: 10 Towns Raise Tech IQs
IBM Smarter Cities Challenge: 10 Towns Raise Tech IQs
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The global population recently passed 7 billion, and more of us are cramming into the world's cities, putting more pressure on municipal infrastructures and services. This changing demographic presents a civic management challenge of unprecedented scope and complexity, one that requires innovative technologies and well-conceived implementations to succeed.

I live in the New York metro area, where local officials are rethinking everything from building codes to public transportation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. But we didn't need the storm of the century to tell us that the systems and networks used for municipal operations need our attention. Technologies woven into buildings, highways, rail systems, electricity grids, water treatment plants, school systems and hospitals are in need of upgrade and investment, here and in many other cities across the country.

At InformationWeek's parent company, UBM, we refer to these burgeoning population centers, characterized not just by their size but the sophistication of their infrastructures, as "Future Cities." InformationWeek has just completed a survey that reveals much about where U.S. cities are in their IT planning and implementation, which technologies are expected to make the greatest impact and how businesses stand to benefit.

InformationWeek's Future Cities Survey, completed in October by 198 municipal IT pros, reveals that most are still in the early stages of these efforts. Only 7% of survey respondents describe their city strategies as progressive and well conceived. More than five times that many, 38%, describe those strategies as poor or nonexistent. Half say their cities are somewhere in-between -- well planned in some areas but not others.

[ The feds also have IT work to do. See 5 Items Should Top Obama's Technology Agenda. ]

As a starting point, metropolitan IT teams are looking to make government run more smoothly. The most-mentioned area of initial focus, cited by 39% of survey respondents, is government operations. That includes the systems and applications used for the business of government, such as 311 and other IT-enabled public services.

Other areas of Future Cities activity are public safety and crime prevention (30%), communications infrastructure (28%) and transportation systems (26%). New York City's recently unveiled Domain Awareness System, co-developed with Microsoft and to be marketed to other cities, incorporates aspects of all three areas in a citywide surveillance platform -- to the chagrin of privacy watchdogs.

The most sought-after benefits of city IT planning and implementation are more efficient delivery of public services (66%), improved infrastructure (44%) and lower costs (44%). That's the low-hanging fruit. More intriguing is that 36% of respondents to our survey see Future Cities technology investments improving quality of life for citizens. For example, the city of Santa Monica, Calif., has deployed a real-time traffic management system to ease congestion and open and close parking spaces as necessary. Commuters there spend fewer hours staring at brake lights. (We recently recognized Santa Monica as a government innovator for its traffic management initiative.)

Which technologies have the greatest potential to improve municipal operations? Mobility and bandwidth top the list of our survey respondents. Mobile devices and apps were rated as having very high or extremely high potential by 71% of respondents, followed closely by broadband networks (70%) and wireless services (62%). Many cities are already taking steps to accommodate smartphone-carrying citizens and visitors. San Francisco has created a device-agnostic framework that it uses to develop mobile apps for city services and information, and New York is converting old payphone booths into touchscreen kiosks that double as Wi-Fi hotspots.

Municipal IT pros also see potential in information and automation systems for transportation (63% of survey respondents designated them as having very high or extremely high potential) and in cameras and other public safety devices (58%). Other technologies respondents rated highly are virtualization, water management and conservation systems, energy-efficient buildings, and smart meters and other monitoring devices.

The biggest obstacle to moving ahead, by far, is finding the money to pay for it. Cash-strapped local governments don't have the revenue to invest in nice-to-haves like predictive analytics for crime prevention or sensor networks for water management. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents point to limited funding as a top challenge to Future Cities initiatives. Municipal CIOs will have to make a strong business case to get projects funded.

Other challenges respondents identified include political leadership (cited by 35%), bureaucracy (34%) and outdated IT infrastructure (27%).

Mayors and other city officials need help from the private sector to move ahead. When we asked who should lead Future Cities efforts, the vast majority of respondents (66%) cited public-private collaboration. The most promising areas for working together are improving K-12 education (identified as very important or extremely important by 57%), expanding access to wireless and broadband networks (57%) and ensuring the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure (54%).

Businesses have a stake in the outcome of these and other Future Cities projects. The most frequently cited business benefit, mentioned by 69% of survey respondents, is access to improved municipal infrastructure and services. Other potential benefits include lower business costs (cited by 45%) and making companies more competitive (38%).

Citizens must be involved as well, and social media is seen as the best way to facilitate their input. While social media ranked dead last in our list of 17 technologies that could improve municipal operations, 60% of respondents say the Web and social media are a prime way for the public to participate in Future Cities activities, and 53% cite crowdsourcing technologies.

The high marks given to public-private partnerships and man-on-the-street brainstorming suggest that municipal IT pros understand that Future Cities programs have their best chance at success when all stakeholders are involved. To facilitate that discussion, we launched a new online community, UBM's Future Cities, in October. It's a place where city leaders and planners, business executives and municipal technologists can bounce ideas off one another. For example, the site just posted a conversation with Manny Diaz, president of the U.S. Council of Mayors and the former mayor of Miami, on the ongoing transformation of Miami from a "laughing stock" into a model city.

More of those conversations must take place in cities around the world, and I plan to join them. Because there's no place like home -- a place I share with 20 million others, and growing.