Can Smaller Communities Be “Smart,” Too?

Government infrastructure

The rise of Smart Cities is a highly anticipated aspect of the digital age, but why are the benefits of living in a connected community limited to large metropolitan areas?

Smart City Solutions For All

Much ink has been spilled concerning the future of government infrastructure with the addition of elements like sensors and connected devices combined with data software and specialized applications: Smart Cities. Next generation technology promises a positive effect on a wide swath of factors, including crime, health, cost of living, sociality, and sustainability. Some estimates hold that a fully realized Smart City could raise the quality of life for citizens by 10 to 30 percent

 

The Smart City technology becoming embedded in public spaces and services is primarily happening in large urban areas. However, the technology can help communities of all shapes and sizes, not just cities explicitly. After all, if the effects of smart city technology are as vast and impressive to municipal management and maintenance as the experts say, then shouldn’t communities of all sizes be able to benefit? At the root, the Smart City movement is about an improved ability to access reliable data to make more efficient decisions and make them swifter. For instance, perhaps elements like public transit and traffic management may not apply to a town as much as a city, but what about aspects like infrastructure asset management?  The ability to manage assets more closely, plan more effectively, and react more quickly means cost savings because of better control over time, effort, and resources. Surely cost savings and efficient decision-making are something that should appeal to leaders regardless of community size. The same goes for public safety technology that can provide safety alerts and community news to citizens, or video surveillance technology that can enhance security in government buildings and public spaces.  

So, why is the talk all about Smart Cities instead of Smart Communities? The population density and economic weight of cities play a large part, but it’s not the only thing. Let’s take a look at some of the technological barriers keeping the advantages of smart technology out of towns, villages, and rural communities.

Problem One: Outdated Technology

Transforming municipal processes with smart technology requires the digitalization of infrastructure,  which itself presents a challenge to many community leaders. To gain difference-making insights, high functioning operational technology must be connected to high functioning IT systems. Unfortunately, many governments use software and tech infrastructure that are legacy systems, sometimes decades old. At first blush, these outdated systems present a major obstacle, for several reasons. First of all, it means that digitizing infrastructure will require major internal systemic change (and change management), which is complicated and time-consuming. Compounding the issue is the fact that, unlike their private sector counterparts, government IT teams work with limited funds and budgets constantly in flux because of legislative and administrative objectives.

 

Outmoded legacy systems, though, are not all bad news when considering infrastructure digitalization. In some ways, they can be a catalyst toward change. Firstly, in the worst cases, these outdated systems have reached obsolescence. If the systems in place are at sunset or have lost support from providers then it makes the move toward some type of replacement or improvement mandatory. Secondly, outdated IT systems affect the larger protocols that depend on them. Outdated tech infrastructure often means that maintenance programs, risk management processes, and emergency response plans are likewise outdated. So, aiming to modernize your government operations with best practices for essential services can necessitate a technology overhaul.

 

Problem Two: Lack of Reliable Network Connectivity

 

Building a smart community relies on the proliferation of connected devices to gather ongoing data constantly, from streets, farms, houses—everywhere. Those devices depend on wireless connection speeds in a critical way. Regrettably, robust connectivity is a major challenge for government leaders outside of major urban centres. Although rural communities cover 72 percent of the United States and nearly 50 million people, almost a third of them lack broadband access.

 

Extending broadband fiber to the country’s underserved rural areas and smaller communities is a complicated and expensive national project. Although there are gains being made in these areas, there are other ways to tackle the problem of digital inclusion. Currently, many municipal governments build fiber networks when they can, but in many places, it simply is not cost-effective. One strategy is to layer a high capacity backbone between buildings, then from there reach out with a private LTE deployment to reach remote infrastructure like traffic controls, remote cameras, and sensing equipment to monitor critical infrastructure. In some cases, leaders may take advantage of that footprint to activate mobile resources like law enforcement, code enforcement, and parking enforcement mobile fleets.

 

Overall, the development of smart communities beyond big cities can have a profound impact on everything from health services, education, and job opportunities. However, it’s up to those communities to equip themselves with not only the technology to achieve these outcomes, but the connectivity to support it.