Talk of the smartening up various things — the electrical grid, buildings, transportation and water systems — often wanders quickly into abstract ideas of a super-wired Jetsons-style future.
But at its core, the idea of making the various systems cities rely on smarter is not actually all that new or futuristic. Companies have been using software and sensors to manage their major assets for years, and now cities are getting in on it.
"Typically, the systems in place in cities are siloed solutions — you've got the police department, the transit authority, the parks and rec department and so on — so information is not easily shared," Bill Sawyer, IBM's vice president of Maximo Operations, told SolveClimate.
"By putting in one system on one platform, they can eliminate a lot of inefficiencies. If the public utilities guys, for example, are out checking out a line that's underground they can easily check with public works and other departments, and then if they're digging a hole they do it once and they don't have another team from another department digging the same hole again one week later."
Sawyer's Maximo Operations department grew out of IBM's purchase of his former company, MRO Software, which had been in the business of enterprise asset management for decades, helping manufacturing facilities and industrial companies manage everything from equipment to trucks and buildings.
When IBM acquired MRO it took the company's asset management capabilities and merged them with its Tivoli software to create a solution that focuses on helping cities not simply maintain equipment but maintain the services that their equipment provides.
It's one of a handful of solutions currently available to cities with stimulus funds to spend, but while smaller companies like Silver Spring Networks are focused on improving a particular aspect of a city (typically its electrical grid), IBM's Smarter Planet initiative is likely to be battling it out with Cisco's Smart+Connected Communities initiative as an integrated solution for cities that connects multiple service areas on one platform.
"When you think about it, in an IT scenario, if a printer or server went down, your IT guys wouldn't rush to fix equipment; they would first establish the service that equipment provides in another way," Sawyer says.
That's the whole point of wiring up cities with censors, according to Sawyer.
If city officials and department heads know what is going on with their equipment, they can more easily ensure that there are no disruptions to the service they provide. Having rich data about their assets also can help cities save money on maintenance issues, Sawyer said.
Projects like IBM's Smarter Planet initiative are not just about slapping censors on everything in a city and then selling cities the servers and network infrastructure to deal with a bunch of new data. They're also about encouraging cities to rethink how they build out infrastructure in the first place so that it works better for longer. Facilitating a shift in thinking is particularly important right now as countries around the world are investing money in public works projects in an effort to stimulate their economies.
"As the world is rebounding from the global recession there's funding coming from various sources, and we're telling people 'Rather than apply that funding to rebuilding a road the way you would have 20 years ago, do it smarter and have it last you longer,'" Sawyer says.
Unfortunately, there's the still the chance that, no matter how smartly infrastructure is built, it won't be used intelligently, but Sawyer says improving visibility and knowledge sharing is a key first step and that city's need to help connect the dots for their residents and raise awareness.
"Our experience has been that even in pilots that happened before smart meters were deployed, where customers were just told that if they ran their dryers from 11pm to 1am instead of their usual time they'd save money, twice as many people responded as were expected," he says.
One of IBM's largest Smart City projects to date was announced in Chesapeake, Va., this week.
The company is bringing the fire department, utilities, public works department and buildings together under one software management system, wiring everything from fire trucks to water tanks with sensors that can help better manage the city's maintenance needs and its ability to provide services to residents.
Chesapeake is currently investing more than $1.2 billion in capital improvement projects.
Having the tools and data to continually improve processes is essential in this economy, said Peter Wallace, chief information officer for the city.
"The City of Chesapeake is less than 50 years old, but those founders inherited hundreds of years of infrastructure," Wallace said. "Until now, we haven't had a quick or convenient way to look at the city's assets and make smart decisions."
(Photo: Chesapeake city crew by IBM)