I recently took part in a meeting with top IT executives from a number of local cities. Someone asked what a smart city actually was. Several people had ideas and suggested definitions, but we quickly realised that a universally-accepted explanation doesn’t exist–the concept of smart cities is still too new and too complex.

Personally, I believe a smart city is one that utilises sensors, data, and technology to improve the lives of residents and visitors. Other definitions vary in detail, scope, and emphasis. To many, this lack of a clear vision makes the idea of incorporating smart city technology intimidating. However, I believe it should be viewed as an opportunity. We are in the early days of a revolution; it is up to each of us to develop our own vision, strategy, framework, and roadmap.

As a county that encompasses much of Silicon Valley, one of the world’s best-known technology centres, it is incumbent on the County of San Mateo to help define this path forward. Furthermore, the absence of a dominant city places county government in the unique position of being a technology thought leader and regional facilitator for all its communities.

We’ve decided to bypass the smart city initiative entirely and jump straight into what we call smart regions. Our goal is to foster innovation that serves the larger community by reaching across city borders. To do this, we are launching a series of innovation zones called SMC Labs. Located at our County Center government campus, the first is intended to showcase the technology required to support smart region infrastructure. Subsequent innovation zones will cover the City of East Palo Alto, then expand countywide, partnering with regional government agencies, non-profits, and private-sector companies along the way.

Our definition of a smart region is an area that leverages the Internet of Things (IoT) to connect infrastructure as well as people–a natural evolution of the county’s award-winning initiatives to bridge the digital divide by offering free, high-speed Internet access at more than three dozen sites countywide. The SMC Labs innovation zones will feature technology for a wide range of use cases, all targeted at critical problems in the county. Our intended solutions are aimed at challenges like air quality monitoring, waste management, transport/traffic, parking, street lighting, pedestrian/bike safety, and public safety. We want to enhance government’s ability to serve the public by providing solutions for communal benefit and being more efficient with taxpayer dollars. The IoT platforms we’ve targeted are flexible, scalable, and secure: privacy and security are always a top priority.

One potential danger to entering the IoT space is that the field has yet to stabilise–rather, it is changing and evolving every day. The SMC Labs project has been designed to mitigate the risks of such rapidly changing technology by starting small. We also take great care when choosing vendor partners to ensure any technology we procure will be well supported and have a clear future. To this end, we look for proven experience in delivering sustainable projects in the field and look for integration partners capable of working with a variety of IoT technologies and combining them into well-designed field solutions.

We also want to ensure IoT innovation is equitable to all parts of the county, even in rural or coastal areas where fibre, cellular, and wireless connectivity is difficult to find. However, every IoT use case has its own connectivity requirement, meaning what works well for one application may not work well for another. To that end, we plan on thoroughly testing current marking offerings while monitoring next-generation solutions. A truly smart region never stops looking toward the future.

There is no one, clear path forward. But that’s why the time we live in is so exciting. Smart solutions don’t need to seem overwhelming; in fact, their very definition is so broad right now that you can find a solution to suit any scope or budget. San Mateo County has approached this problem with research and small-scale testing. However, your mileage may vary. And for right now, that’s exactly as it should be.

San Mateo County’s IoT lab project will debut at the Internet of Things World conference, 14-17 May, 2018 in Santa Clara, California

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