The future of smart city tech: Helping governments be proactive, not reactive

Applying smart technology to waste and recycling fleets provides a win for citizens, governments and the environment, and helps build equitable communities, says Rubicon’s Michael Allegretti.

Cities today are required to do more with less. Mayors want to do right by the environment, but there is only so much that they can afford to do at once. And when re-election looms, they must pick their battles wisely.

Discussions around smart city technology and the benefits it can bring often ignore two crucial details: shrinking city budgets, and a strong desire by city officials to deliver fast results.

When city governments partner with smart city technology companies, they are sending a message to other cities and to their own residents that it is possible to do right by the environment while saving tax dollars and creating more equitable and sustainable communities at the same time.

Along with on-time waste and recycling pick-up, keeping city streets clean and clear is one of the core functions of a well-run city. When a city deploys non-intrusive smart city technology in their fleet vehicles, they can quickly discover that less may actually be more when it comes to tackling their city’s more pervasive ailments.

In short, they can extract maximum benefits by using their existing resources – like fleets – in new and innovative ways.

When less is more

For smart city technology to continue to deliver on its promises to the cities that procure it, it’s important for it to focus first and foremost on improving the operational efficiency of a city, without adding new and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Existing government fleet vehicles, such as waste and recycling trucks, street sweepers, and even snowploughs in many northern cities, are the only vehicles that go up and down every city street at least once a week. These routes are set; but are they being fully leveraged to drive maximum taxpayer return?

When smart city technology maximises existing government resources it allows mayors and other city officials to do more with less. Why spend upwards of tens of thousands of dollars on an outside organisation to ensure that your city’s Pavement Condition Index (PCI) is up to standard when this same information can be gleaned by placing smart city technology into existing city-owned fleet vehicles?

Maximising existing city resources under the “less is more” approach ensures that extra vehicles are not being added to our already-crowded city streets, which is a win for the environment while in turn creating tangible safety gains by keeping these vehicles off the road.

Don’t sleep on potholes

Do a search for ‘mayor potholes’ online and you will find headline after headline – thousands of them – that showcase mayors “declaring war” on the ubiquitous pothole.

Fixing potholes is something we can all get behind; it’s a winning issue on all sides of the political spectrum, which is why the detection of potholes and cracks in the road is an important feature to have at the core of any smart city technology offering.

Potholes are formed when water seeps through a road’s surface, freezes, then expands, creating cracks in the asphalt above which, with the help of vehicles driving over them, eventually crumble, forming a hole. Potholes are a major annoyance for all of us, especially if you are at pains to avoid specific potholes that have been sitting unfilled for some time on your daily commute.

While no city should be blamed for the formation of cracks in their road surfaces, instances of potholes can be significantly reduced when cracks are detected early, and the coordinates of the cracks are logged and a photo of the offending asphalt is sent wirelessly to city employees. They can then work on sending out a team to fix the cracks at a cost to the taxpayer far less than the cost of filling in a well-worn hole, or as importantly, a damaged car that falls victim to them.

This lowered cost to the taxpayer, coupled with the goodwill that it engenders with citizens, is just another example of a smart city technology solution that can genuinely help cities do more with less; while achieving greater operational efficiency.

Creating more equitable communities

Of course, potholes and cracks in the road aren’t the only things that smart city technology can help identify.

Non-intrusive smart city technology, that is, technology that can be placed within the cab of a city fleet vehicle and, aside from installation, requires little maintenance and no driver interaction, can be programmed to recognise anything from crumbling sidewalks, graffiti, high weeds, and vacant homes, among other things.

It can identify overflowing waste bins, allowing cities to educate or fine those addresses that consistency skirt the rules. It can even automatically log service confirmations, taking away inconclusive “he said, she said” scenarios should a location claim it wasn’t serviced by a waste vehicle, street sweeper, or snowplough.

These last points get to the crux of what this technology can do for a city. Municipal fleets, garbage trucks in particular, follow fixed routes every week. They travel to both high-income areas and developing neighbourhoods, and they provide service to the central business districts and the outermost reaches of every city.

They do not discriminate – not one zip code is given preferential treatment over another – and as such when smart city technology is applied to these fleets they are able to start making real progress toward building even more equitable communities.

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