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Smart city job one: sunset the silos

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City officials and infrastructure vendors may come to the smart city challenge from different worlds, but they agree on at least one thing: cities can invest more effectively if they can break down the “silos” that keep different municipal departments from communicating regularly. Usually the lack of communication has more to do with busy schedules than with distrust or competition. Whatever the reason, money is being wasted and opportunities are being lost when city officials stay inside their silos.

In Austin, Texas, at the Smart Cities Council’s first smart city readiness workshop, participants said that it can be hard to fund projects because the agencies involved all have their own budgets and agendas. Austin’s electric utility, airport, and water and wastewater utility each operate as separate businesses with their own bonds and their own revenue.

“I’m not saying they can’t collaborate but you have to get them together in a room,” said Kerry O’Connor, Austin’s chief innovation officer.

Morne Erasmus, director of business development at CommScope Connectivity Solutions, gives the example of a city police department that uses connected security cameras. He said that in some cases the cameras could also serve first responders or the city transportation department, if officials could work together. The key, he said, is communication during the early phases of a project so that the infrastructure can support more than one use case. For example, when a street is opened up for fiber installation, cities can add extra conduit and/or extra fiber cables so that they will be ready for the future.

“At that point it’s very inexpensive to add capacity so you can expand later,” Erasmus said. He said cities should ask themselves “What’s the minimal incremental cost you can add for the maximum outcome?”

CommScope sells fiber cables and connectors to the service providers who bid on city infrastructure projects, and Erasmus has insight into several successful smart city initiatives. He said that some European cities are at the forefront when it comes to long term planning. In the UK, for example, BT is running fiber to street poles instead of using microwave backhaul for connected lights. This will make it easier to add more connected sensors to the poles later on.

“We really need to help cities make the right technology decisions for longevity,” Erasmus said. “All of these projects are ROI driven but we need to start getting smarter about looking at the big picture.”

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