The Smart CIties Connect Conference & Expo serves as a great benchmark to note the progress for smart cities across the U.S. (and Canada!) This past September 26-29, government, industry, academic and civic leaders gathered in the DC area for a few packed days of panels, presentations, workshops, hallway conversations, and social gatherings. The smart cities community has come a long way since this event first took place in 2016.
Here are a few key themes from the conference:
Funding approachable action
With trillions of dollars in federal funding for local communities promised to design and deploy smart city solutions, there was a noticeable sense of urgency to learn, share and build upon best practices. Discussion focused on the mandate from these funding events – including the $1.7 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) – for smart city leaders to consider the long term impact of transformation and not get hung up by limited thinking or short term incentives. There was a resounding theme that the next few years could determine the next few decades in terms of transforming strategic planning into practical impact.
A long journey from pilot to procurement
Conference content centered on real-world projects and case studies inspiring the adage “The roadmap to a smarter city may be paved with pilot projects.” Speakers referenced these case studies, pointing out that pilot projects can be an effective tool to test what works and what doesn’t, to iterate amidst complexity, to demonstrate processes with internal stakeholders and/or to encourage public engagement. They also noted the challenge that efforts often sputter when it comes time to scale successful pilots for more substantial impact, which is frustrating for public and private sectors alike. Speakers emphasized repeatedly that as each smart city effort matures and evolves, the iterative process will stymie unless legal, regulatory and procurement offices are brought along. Several Innovation Officers shared the sentiment that, “I wish I could bring my entire procurement team to the Smart Cities Connect Spring conference in Denver.”
Infrastructure investment for interoperable, equitable solutions
Conversations were especially focused on foundational infrastructure investment ranging from connectivity to smart lighting platforms to electric vehicle charging. City leaders indicated they were ready to think in terms of platforms, but with the caveat that these cannot be isolated or “walled garden” attempts to co-opt innovation. City leaders stated they wanted to be able to build upon and within these platforms to best serve everyone in the community. The concepts of interoperability and an emphasis on equity were stressed in every conversation indicating the convergence of significant need with the advent of significant funding.
Collaboration got top marks
For those that undertook early efforts to build collaborations and partnerships across sectors it was clear that those benefits have been realized. Building trust was repeatedly mentioned as the first step when trying to deliver innovation. Discussion on the idea went far beyond the touchy-feely and harkened directly to resources as federal funders incentivize partnerships across sectors and even throughout regions. A healthy ecosystem of partners was mentioned as they key to ensuring the intersection of infrastructure investment and equity as dollars flow from federal agencies to the state level to the local level.
After six consecutive years of hosting the event, Smart Cities Connect maintained its commitment to city-first programming that inspires real conversation, meaningful connection, and approachable action in local communities. Content was structured across four main pillars -Digital Transformation, Urban Operations, Smart Mobility and Urban Infrastructure – and was designed to deliver high level overviews and very tangible takeaways.
Beyond these core tenets, there was a noticeable shift in how communities are going about the business of smart cities. Those early adopters who started their efforts in response to the U.S. Dept of Transportations’ Smart City Challenge in 2016 claimed their “senior class” status and wisely used that accolade to spend time providing mentorship, knowledge and support for those more recent to the smart city effort. The 2022 Smart Cities Connect conference painted a very bright picture for the future.