Friday, May 14, 2021

Why smart city technology has lost its buzz

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Just a few years ago, smart cities, a catch-all phrase for connecting urban infrastructure like parking meters and online red lights, made the buzz. The idea was to use machine learning to analyze data collected in cities in order, for example, to minimize traffic delays and reduce pollution.

Butsmart city projects did not take off as quickly as expected, in part due to COVID-19 decimating local economies and slashing city budgets.

Cisco’s ambitious Kinetic for Cities software, a dashboard for governments to manage data from their local smart city projects, is one of the latest smart city causes. Ciscosaid in December that he would kill the product.

“Cities realized this wasn’t what they really needed,” said Guy Diedrich, head of global innovation at Cisco.

Instead of pushing its software, Cisco plans to work with city officials on other efforts involving Internet connectivity. The company has recently done a lot of work with local officials to install basic internet infrastructure, such as helping Brazilian cities to create virtual courtrooms, he said.

Michele Pelino, Forrester analyst and smart cities expert, said local governments were feeling pressure to keep the city’s operations booming despite shrinking budgets. Because smart city projects can be expensive and often don’t pay for years, they get scaled back.

In addition, some smart city projects have focused on solving problems that are no longer so urgent. Reducing traffic and parking currently in many cities is not as important as many workers no longer travel downtown due to shelter-in-place rules.

Now, city governments are making “safety and security” a priority and have reallocated some of their budgets to address the problem, Pelino said.

“People need to feel confident that they are entering a safe and secure environment,” she said of these types of projects.

Pelino doesn’t know when more ambitious projects, like using machine learning to optimize traffic lights, will be reinstated. She is “sure” that bigger projects will eventually come back, but right now many cities don’t have the money.

“Where will the change come from?” Pelino said.

As for Cisco, shutting down its smart city technology is another example of its challenges to grow beyond its core networking hardware business. Although the networking giant has branched out into new areas like selling more specialized products chips and networking Software, the overall activity of the company is still contraction because companies are buying fewer routers and switches than before, in part because of the rise of cloud computing.

Diedrich is still optimistic about Cisco’s smart city push, saying the company has yet to learn more about it by working with governments through its Digital Country Acceleration Program (CDA), intended to help various governments in their digitization projects.

“What we’ve learned from coming to cities is that their needs evolve and change in real time,” said Diedrich. “One thing we don’t do is find what we think cities need and put it down their throats – it’s not Cisco and certainly not the CDA program.

As to whether Cisco would have continued to sell its Kinetic for Cities software without the coronavirus pandemic, Diedrich was vague. One thing is certain: any smart city project the company pursues will involve artificial intelligence.

Among local governments that are still testing smart city projects, officials “know that artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to be very important,” Diedrich said, adding that this is necessary to make quick decisions like quick adjust signal fires.

Jonathan vanian
@JonathanVanian
jonathan.vanian@fortune.com



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