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  • Writer's pictureJoel Scharlat

STEP into Smart Communities

I’ve taken a personal interest in Smart Communities – there’s supposedly a smart city coming to a location within a few minutes of my house in Loudoun County, Virginia. It also happens to be the first stop on the Silver Line of the Metro for Loudoun County, so I’m also excited and certainly hopeful that the arrival of these two projects will make our lives better and our interactions with each other more fruitful. Before we can pop the cork in celebration though, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The more I look into these Smart Cities/Communities (I’m going to use Smart Cities and Smart Communities interchangeably here), the more I realize that the “smart” doesn’t necessarily come from the technology, but from the whole approach to designing, developing, and deploying smart cities, and involves social and technical factors, economic drivers, and political influences (STEP).

What is a Smart City

Definitions of what makes a city “smart” are varied. Most definitions, however, tend to agree on one point. A smart city is not just about technology. A smart city is a community powered by data that is used to make interactions between citizens, the government, and even the infrastructure of a community accessible and meaningful. This data is collected through myriad sensors that range from devices like cameras, microphones, etc., to cars, cell-phones, and other non-traditional methods.

Public services become smarter when informed by the data that was collected. The idea is to make our lives easier through some level of automation. For example, data about road conditions could be aggregated for government officials to better understand traffic patterns and make real-time adjustments to traffic lights. That same data could be made available to motorists via mapping applications to aid in routing traffic around accidents to which local law enforcement has responded. Pretty cool, huh? And there are applications across mobility, health and wellness, public safety and even economic development. So let’s STEP forward.


Smart communities need to provide value that matters to their citizens and visitors, because, well, they live and play there. Providing a service that doesn’t add value is a waste of resources because that service won’t get used. And if too many value-less services get introduced, we’ll lose everyone’s attention and get written off as a fad and not worth the effort. So we need to engage all of the stakeholders.

People need to trust that the data collected about them does not invade their privacy and is well protected. Good security practices will help protect privacy, build trust, and encourage the growth of these communities. Also, norms relating to what will and won’t be acceptable are established by society and can significantly affect smart projects (anyone here a “glasshole“?).


Technology plays a large role in smart communities, and smart cities are essentially large-scale IoT projects. They contain the same basic components as IoT projects, which I’ve written about already. (The figure below shows the components but go ahead, take a minute to read my other blog posts anyway.)

Individual projects need to be coordinated with a larger master plan to ensure interoperability across the community. Some standards are beginning to appear and even some frameworks, but there is much work to be done. The end state should be open standards-based building blocks for others to develop on top of lest we all go wandering off on our own and we end up with smart jungles.


Economic development is both a driver and a result of smart city projects. In determining what to make “smart”, projects have to be both economically feasible and sustainable. In determining the economic costs, realize that implementing a technology solution is only part of the cost. There’s training, maintenance, and upgrade costs – aka life cycle costs.

Public-private partnerships can help make these endeavors more affordable, and there are other ways to reduce costs, including jointly deploying services across multiple government departments. For example, governments can deploy high-bandwidth networks that can be used for different applications by multiple departments, spreading the cost of deployment.

As we implement smart city projects, and data is exposed, more apps will be developed taking advantage of the open environment. A skilled workforce follows the money.


Oh, politics. Who really likes politics? Just a few people, but politics play a prominent role in smart cities. From politicians to policies, nothing can stop a project in its tracks faster. But I prefer to think about it in a more positive light. With helpful politicians and policies, smart cities projects can take life and flourish.

Sure, they can be impediments: politicians allocate and spend the money, and they have an agenda based on made promises in getting elected. Making good on their campaign promises is typically the focus of their administration, and those promises probably didn’t include smart anything. Politicians also tend to be more conservative in spending taxpayer money, and rightly so. No elected official wants to be too innovative with high-risk projects, which smart city projects tend to be.

But politicians can also be enablers: finding a forward-thinking official who can help navigate political issues and coordinate projects across the different silos within the government, goes a long way to getting smart city projects off the ground. These same forward-thinking politicians can help formulate policies to get outdated thinking out of the way of progress.

Moving Forward

Take a STEP in the right direction. When thinking about smart cities, it’s helpful to understand the forces at play and influences they have. Interested in discussing more? Reach out and let’s chat!

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