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Creating Economic Development in Your Digital City

Have you ever had an idea to improve your city? 

Have you ever thought that there were better ways to get around, or find something you were looking for, or even more generally to find something interesting to do? I’m sure most of us have. But if realizing those ideas involves putting a technology infrastructure across the city, chances are that your idea never made it to reality.

This is one of the major problems of the Smart City 1.0 movement. Since cities are inherently complicated environments, only the largest and most complicated businesses could build and maintain solutions that would scale to the needs of the world’s largest cities. Yet it is precisely those cities that would benefit from unleashing the innovation of its citizens.

In my last post, I discussed why industrial companies are best suited to help deploy, secure and maintain digital infrastructure for the smart city 2.0 where broader, lasting impact is made. They are used to building open infrastructure that can be used by anyone and don’t attempt to solve every problem.  This open infrastructure can increase equity across all city stakeholders by enabling anyone with a good idea to participate in the next wave of technology advances.

Let’s compare what someone would have to do to create a solution in a typical city vs a Smart City 2.0. Today, if you had an idea for building an application to help simplify traffic or parking or where to stand to find the most empty subway car, you might have to (1) create sensors to capture the data you want, (2) figure out how and where to install them to collect data, (3) go through permitting to gain approval to deploy sensors, (4) physically schedule the deployment of sensors, (5) ensure that the data came back to the cloud securely… and all this before you could even begin writing an application to solve a problem!

This process is so complicated that it is sure to dissuade all but the most committed innovators (or the largest tech companies who have large teams committed to this process) to go through the effort. How many great city innovations have died before they were even started?

Now, let’s compare how this would work with deployed, open, city-wide digital infrastructure. With digital infrastructure active and in place, and simulated data-sets open and available for all developers to use, if you have an idea for a solution, you can prototype it in an evening, using code that you know will work on the city. A many-month long process turns into, potentially, a mere few hours. You can be testing your solution that day and getting feedback on its design and value.

This is really happening, and it’s happening now. I was recently at a hackathon in the Bay Area where about 200 developers worked for two days building very innovative applications on simulated data from city infrastructure. Their solutions, which were built against ubiquitous LED streetlights as the open infrastructure platform, ranged from helping people locate AED devices for victims of heart attacks, to helping walkers finding the safest way through parks, to creating a whole new hands-free experience to finding parking. And all of these solutions could be converted instantly from simulated data to real data without the need to deploy any new infrastructure.

With open, digital infrastructure opportunities like this one thrive. The barriers to entry are virtually eliminated. New companies are able to innovate and the opportunity for investors to find real returns – and create jobs – grows exponentially.  I predict that city leaders that endorse digital infrastructure will see an explosion in incubators and venture funding in this space. Even high school projects can build skills to solve these real world problems!

Digital infrastructure will propel more people into the digital economy, allowing individuals AND corporations to innovate and partner to unlock new outcomes.

The next wave of economic growth is upon us. City leaders who invest in the infrastructure to support it will enable all of their citizens to participate, making life better for all of us.

About the Author: 

As Chief Digital Officer of Current, powered by GE, John is responsible for orchestrating an enterprise-wide transformation by leveraging the capabilities of GE's Digital business.