The 5 major roadblocks to smart city infrastructure

Powerful trends are pushing the global community to develop more smart cities, as the world population increases and more people move to urban environments.

By 2050, there will be approximately 2.5 billion new urban residents. “Every month our urban population grows by about 5 million between births and migration. So that’s roughly a million new housing units we need every month, and then the requisite number of hospitals and schools and roadways and other infrastructure,” said Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council, during Smart Cities Week in Washington, DC in early October 2017.

As new infrastructure is built to support the growing population, it is essential that it is smart infrastructure to improve the lives of citizens.

“This is not just a trend. It’s a race. The world is not waiting for us. It’s a race for a connected lifestyle,” Berst said.

However, there are five major infrastructure roadblocks that cities across the globe have to deal with in order to become a smart city. Different regions might have different priorities, but almost all cities face these five issues:

  1. Technology
  2. Policy
  3. Financing
  4. Stakeholder engagement
  5. Governance

Roadblock #1: Technology

The Smart Cities Council has surveyed city officials, and they consistently say that understanding which technology they need is their top concern. Berst said he hears from city officials questions such as, “How do I do it in a cross-cutting way? How do you actually do it in real life, and what does that mean, and which vendors do you use?”

Berst said, “This is actually the easiest of the problems, and I’m not saying it’s trivial, but that’s technology stuff that we’ve got figured out, if they could connect to the right companies.”


Roadblock #2: Policy

The next main concern is policy and learning how to regulate in a way that unleashes economic development and still safeguards citizens. As one example, he said, “There are a lot of cities racing to be early to autonomous vehicles. They want the innovation of all time. They want the early jobs. They want the reputation. But there are a lot of policies that you’ve got to change that get into liability and access and equity and the right to use the roads.”

Many cities have policies in place that worked for the last century, but are now obsolete. It might be anything from a policy that prevents utility companies from installing solar rooftops or even a simple signage policy, he said.

“I was visiting Pittsburgh and they created an app that would tell people how many free parking spaces there were in the city parking structures, and then point them to the next one if this one was full, and they weren’t allowed to attach that sign because of some signage regulation, so they had to go and build these ‘temporary’ things that weren’t attached to anything,” Berst said. It took the city of Pittsburgh an extra six months to overcome the existing signage policies.


Roadblock #3: Financing

Financing might be the biggest thing holding cities back from adding smart city infrastructure, which is particularly frustrating because there are many creative financing options to choose from, Berst said.

“Many cities don’t know about these other ways, and they’re still kind of locked into municipal bonds and capital projects. There’s also some psychological resistance. There’s lots of people who are really nervous about, or dislike the idea of public/private partnerships, and for some reason it’s fine in their mind for Google to have a monopoly, or Facebook to have a monopoly, or Microsoft to have a monopoly and reap huge financial rewards, but if a company wants to come and build some public infrastructure, they don’t want them to make a profit from that,” Berst said.

Some cities also have problems with moving items from the capital budget to the operations budget, which would be necessary to install items such as streetlights or a smart grid “as-a-Service” where a city doesn’t pay anything up-front, but just pays per month to the vendor.

For many cities, “it’s easier for some of them to build a big data center than it is to pay a much smaller monthly fee for cloud. They’re just not set up that way, and they have policy issues and so on,” Berst said.


Roadblock #4: Stakeholder engagement

Figuring out how to get stakeholder involvement both internally and externally is a major problem for some cities. Stakeholders include citizens, businesses, universities, and city employees.

“If I had to pick a problem that I see cities making most often, it’s failing to assemble the right team, up-front—a team that includes all of your internal stakeholders, but also all of your key external stakeholders. Internally, it’s the department heads, so they can say, ‘Oh, you need a network? We need a network, too,’ or, ‘You want to do video? We need to do video, too.’ But then, if you’re not also including your utilities in the conversation, if you’re not also including your low-income advocates, and your advocates for the handicapped, and your university, you’re just crazy,” Berst said.

“Now, I understand the temptation to go, ‘Oh, God. Everybody’s going to complain. Let’s just go over here. We’ll do it. Before they notice it, we’ll have this done, and they’ll like it.’ Actually, that almost always backfires. I’m not saying you have to have all of these people with you every day on your working group, but once a month, once a quarter, you need to be checking in with them. You need to be hearing their ideas, and you need to be hearing their objections,” Berst said.

“You get better ideas when you’ve got a broad group of stakeholders, and diversity helps you get better buy-in because when people help plan, even if they end up with the same plan you had in mind, they’ve now bought in emotionally, and then you hear about objections and problems early. We had a number of instances back in the days of the Smart Grid, when utilities just imposed this top-down. The first time a person would hear about it was a [person knocking on the door], and, you know, ‘We’ll be by next Tuesday to swap out your meter. By the way, your rates are going to go up by $100 a year.’ And they got huge pushback. We don’t want to have that kind of situation,” Berst said.

Chicago experienced a similar situation when it installed environmental sensors and cameras on smart streetlights and citizens worried they were being watched. “It started out as, ‘Wow. Look at all this great stuff,’ and then it became, ‘Big Brother is watching us,’ and then it became, ‘Oh, my God, they’re not secure, so anybody can tap into it, now everybody’s watching us.’ It took them a good year, if not longer, to get through that,” Berst said.


Roadblock #5: Governance

Getting departments to work together is a problem in smart cities. Government departments have traditionally operated as silos, and overcoming that mindset is difficult for many cities. Using data as an example, Berst said it’s important to know, “Who is allowed to have access to the data? Who is allowed to update the data? Who is required to keep the data up to date?”

The change in management style is part of governance. “How do I bring our people forward? People are tribal. People don’t like change. People specialize. And, all of that’s normal and natural, but we have to break through that to have a smart city because it is about data from all the departments, and it is about all of the departments serving their citizens digitally,” Berst said.


Picture of John Marwel

John Marwel


Within this program, we can deliver to governments and cities the possibility of implementing Smart City projects from idea (vision) to the final stage of implementation.

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