How garbage trucks could become the eyes and ears of cities

Truly smart cities reinforce, don’t replace, existing infrastructure.

Government leaders today face high volumes of workflow and citizen demand with increasingly tight budgets. Not surprisingly, this often causes a risk-averse environment. Yet cities that build room for creativity, innovation — and yes, risk — open up the opportunity to do more with less. The smart cities movement is all about enhancing processes and improving efficiencies.

Even so, there’s a notion that becoming a smart city takes a big upfront investment. There are smart city pretenders that try to convince local governments to replace working equipment with expensive and unnecessary “smart” machinery. Cities should instead seek out technology that enhances their existing infrastructure.

Optimize existing assets

Take an asset-heavy department like public works, for example. Most cities own a fleet of garbage trucks, each worth $250,000 or more. By integrating this existing fleet with data, departments of public works can achieve greater operational efficiency. With something as simple to implement as a smartphone app, municipalities can gather more intelligence to provide better service to the community.

Public works can deliver more precise pick-up times, optimize driver routes and reduce contamination rates thanks to analytics and insights. More efficient routes also limit wear and tear, lengthening the shelf life of city streets and reducing the need for road and truck repairs. All this is achievable with add-on technology. No new trucks, no new machinery, no new infrastructure.

Enable interconnectivity

The best solutions not only integrate and fit within a department-specific framework, but also help a city achieve interconnectivity. Efforts to improve sustainability, for example, have historically taken place in different parts of city government, often in siloes away from day-to-day city operations. This means that offices of sustainability and departments of public works have never really functioned in lock step. Smart technology — and the data that it provides — helps to bring these departments together and ensure that everyone shares a common goal.

For example, equipped with real-time landfill diversion and recycling rates, city officials can better understand how to target recycling education efforts, a policy that cuts across both public works and sustainability. By pinpointing specific neighborhoods that have lagging recycling rates, a city can focus its efforts in the most efficient and effective way. These sorts of data points can also help to positively impact the city’s standing in various sustainability and resiliency indices, as well as open up new state and federal grant opportunities.

Anticipate community needs

Now, take it one step further. Beyond just waste management and sustainability initiatives, imagine if those same old garbage trucks could become the eyes and ears of a city. Equipment that’s existed for generations, that sits in an often-overlooked department, has the potential to become a fleet of roving data centers. This is a radical shift and could drive meaningful change in city management.

Think back for a moment to the invention of the 311 phone number. Before this civilian hotline existed, citizens often had to track down and call a city councilman or local politician to report any issues like potholes or vacant homes. There were longer turnaround times and people were less likely to engage, leaving the onus on the government. While the 311 number was a turning point for civic engagement, it is still reactive. What if governments could take control with a more proactive approach?

Garbage trucks drive up and down every city street at least once a week. Unlike stationary cameras, these trucks can offer a view of the entire city. Trucks outfitted with sensors have the ability to collect valuable data across the entire city ecosystem, from the department of transportation, to parks and recreation, to housing. This gets back to the importance of interconnectivity.

As garbage trucks travel throughout a city, they can collect information about neighborhood effects and can feed it back to a centralized portal. This centralized system – the brain, if you will – can then inform multiple departments about where service is needed.  The possibilities are nearly limitless – from identifying potholes, to reporting vacant homes, to testing for air quality or excessive noise pollution. The list goes on and on, and the technology already exists.

Pave the way for future tech

Today’s smart cities should also look ahead to future innovations to stay ahead of the curve. While autonomous vehicles are a hot topic today for personal transportation, this technology is probably more likely to first emerge in the commercial and government sectors. And what better way to test a self-driving vehicle than to use one that moves 5 to 10 miles per hour in 20-foot increments?

Autonomous vehicles may become reality when governments ultimately find a need to upgrade their trucks. But for now, existing garbage trucks can pave the way for this forthcoming technology by collecting the necessary data for future routes. Phrased differently, those cities that collect the right urban data points are paving the digital roads on which self-driving government vehicles will move.

All levels of government are moving toward smarter infrastructures based on data and analytics, transparency, application of technology and greater connectivity. To be truly smart, cities must optimize existing infrastructures and use technology to deliver better, faster and cheaper services – together.