Key Takeaway from Smart Cities Week: Has Govtech’s Outdated Policies and Extended Procurement Cycle Actually Been a Good Thing?

Smart Cities Week, hosted by the Smart Cities Council, took place at the Santa Clara Convention Center this week with the core theme, “Next-Generation Smart Cities.” The event brought together civic leaders from municipalities spread throughout the US and world to hear from smart city leaders how they are transforming their cities, and to engage with vendors and thought leaders to discuss ways to move forward and accelerate deployment of smart city initiatives in their own communities. It’s clear that the technologies are progressing exponentially faster than the policy, and the learning curve for civic leadership is much steeper than industry. The intimacy with connected systems, sensors, the concept of remote operations, and the jump from SCADA to industrial IoT was a small stream opposed to the Amazonian leaps many city leaders must make to understand the technologies and concepts used to digitize their cities. Beyond the technology learning curve that clearly exists, one fact that seems to be holding steady for the US smart cities market, it is:

Next-Generation Technologies vs. Outdated Govtech Policies and Procurement Cycles

Smart Cities

The Gap between Technology Innovation and Government Policy is Growing

All stakeholders agreed that the extreme length and burdensome government contract process and procurement cycle are major market headwinds and pain points for all parties involved. Many municipalities do not have a plan or mechanism now or in the works to deal with purchasing agreements with vendors that are based on as-a-Service models. The prospect of this changing soon for many communities is bleak at best.  During the day 1 readiness workshop, I had the opportunity to sit at a round table discussion with the leaders of several smaller California cities that are facing big hurdles when it comes to early phase smart city deployments. These cities are facing probably even more difficult challenges than big cities when it comes to digital transformation. For many, there is not broadband infrastructure in place, and unlike their bigger brethren these small and mid-size cities are not attractive enough to an ISP to justify the capital expenditure of laying fiber line to those areas. Without the broadband fiber as the foundation for their IoT backbone, these smaller municipalities can still reach their goals, but it must be executed in a more abstract (for civic leadership especially) and less holistic fashion.

Our dialogue eventually also delivered a clear juxtaposition between a city that has hired a tech savvy young CIO versus a city that has not yet moved in that direction. The more experienced leader seemed to believe his smart city strategy can only begin with laying fiber and operating via a city owned ISP model. The younger and more tech savvy CIO can see the forest through the trees and thinks multi-modal wireless with 5G coming down the pipeline next will be a cost-effective and viable alternative for her community, especially when you consider cost to deploy.  By the time the fiber truck arrives in her city a few years from now and starts digging up the streets, 5G might already be fully deployed in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.  The difference in the launch of broadband coverage will be meaningless, but the budget for a fiber project might leave her with little left to invest in smart city projects and possible force the city to cut somewhere else as well.

Why do I think Governments Slow Adoption of Smart Cities Technology has actually been a Godsend?

If not for the way government works here in the US, many of these small and midsize cities would be putting out RFPs, and because of the way government works would be choosing lower cost bids from emerging vendors.  Without understanding what to ask for, winning bidders’ technology may not have been developed securely or addressed cybersecurity at all.  Also, this time is giving local government time to understand the technology and figure out where in their city it can provide the most value.  It also allows for citizen involvement in the process and provides the time needed to engage with residents and businesses to find out how technology could improve their lives.   If it was possible and the bureaucracy could be lifted, I have no doubt that US cities would be deploying billions of unsecured devices right now from vendors promising them the magical city of Oz, and without knowing they would of been building a global-scale hornets’ nest. The presence of NIST funded Tozny as an exhibitor was a good sign but developers for this market seem to think they can keep procrastinating and waiting to address security till they know that they have a viable product that is starting to make money.  The buyers, in this case the cities, need to set their own standards and make sure they are working with vendors who believe in cyber safe products and systems.  One small thing would be to require their device management and edge architecture developers to utilize Tozny for their edge-to-cloud data transfer and storage. I’m hopeful that by the time the local governments are able to utilize as-a-Service procurement models, things will progress in a way where civic leadership has a handle on the technologies and the hardware and software being deployed for smart cities has the baked-in cybersecurity that is absolutely required for this market.