"Many smart city projects don't have immediate ROI attached," Piva said. "My personal reflection is that technology of the future will become more and more invisible to individuals, and the best success criteria will be people not really even noticing the technology. For the time being, that means seeing a lot of technology trying to talk to us or engage with us in various ways. Every city mayor and everybody running for election is now invested in making his city smart. You sort of need to attract businesses and want to attract individuals with talent and make it a prosperous place, to make it livable and workable."
Piva admitted that "smart city" is a broad concept and a lot to take in, especially for average taxpayers who must foot the bill for smart city projects. "It's a topic very high up on everybody's mind, and it's a question of which pathway you use to get there," he said. "Different leaders focus in different directions."
Piva said he has noticed that some cities want to focus on building technology communities, which seems to be a significant part of what Kansas City, Mo., is doing with an innovation corridor coming to an area with a new 2.2-mile streetcar line.
Other cities, especially in Brazil, are using technology to focus on fostering tourism, Piva said. "The common element of smart cities is the citizen and the need to have citizens involved and feel at home," he explained.
Over and over, city officials talk about the smart city as needing to provide "citizen engagement."
China's focus on smart cities
China, which has multiple cities with more than 10 million residents each, has pushed forward with a variety of smart technologies, some that might rankle Americans because of the potential privacy risks they raise.
Piva said there are nearly 300 pilot smart city projects going on in a group of municipalities in the middle of the vast nation. "If you jump on a bus, you may encounter facial recognition, which will be used to determine whether you have a bus permit," he said.
The city of Yinchuan has reduced the size of its permitting work force from 600 employees to 50 by using a common online process accessible to citizens who need anything from a house-building permit to a driver's license, Piva said.
While Yinchuan's payback on new permitting technology is easy to determine, "a lot of these ROIs are really hard to calculate," Piva admitted.
A stark contrast to Yinchuan's smart city initiative, which has a concrete monetary ROI, is in Dubai. Officials in that United Arab Emirates city are building a "happiness meter," which will collect digital inputs from ordinary citizens on their reactions to various things. It could be used to evaluate the combined impact of the cleanliness of streets and the effectiveness of security checkpoints with an assortment of other measures. In some cities, citizen inputs regarding happiness may come from smartphones. But they also could come from digital polling stations. For example, users of airport bathrooms might click a happy face button at a kiosk if they thought the bathrooms were clean.
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