A Blueprint for Smart Communities: Understanding the Municipal IoT

To realize the potential of smart cities, public agencies will need to work together and figure out the Municipal Internet of Things.


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Image credit: City of San Leandro

Those of us in charge of building smart cities understand that IoT technology has great untapped potential. We also know that smart communities--a broader term that is inclusive of counties, special districts, and states, in addition to cities--will utilize an assortment of devices, networks, data and analytics, or what we’ll call Municipal IoT. And we know these technologies collectively may be able to improve many aspects of public service delivery.

But what we still don’t know is how we will get there. How do we advance the goals of smart communities, fully realize the benefits that IoT technology can bring, and avoid undesirable effects on public security and privacy?

The best way for the public sector to start making the smart city movement a reality is also the most obvious. With the help of solution integrators, public sector agencies should build and deploy their own IoT networks and identify, test, scale, and share use-cases and applications that are designed specifically to solve their challenges.

Easy, right? Not quite.

The Municipal IoT: Demonstrating Value

To help drive this forward, we recently published the Municipal IoT Blueprint as part of the Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC), a program sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). We conducted research with local governments who are innovating with IoT and demonstrating the value to public sector agencies of building and testing their own IoT solutions.

The city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is a great example. They built a LoRaWAN network leveraging a city-owned fiber-connected tower. The network has a coverage radius of 10 kilometers, built-in security, and was inexpensive to construct. They deployed sensors to measure moisture, humidity, light and other conditions at Devonian Gardens, which is an urban, indoor 2.5-acre park and botanical garden managed by the city’s Parks Department. It features a living wall, koi ponds, fountains, a children's play area, and more than 550 trees. Historically, it has been a costly problem to know exactly how much water and maintenance is needed to keep this thriving ecosystem healthy.

City of Calgary Devonian Gardens

Image credit: Semtech, City of Calgary Devonian Gardens

Using the IoT sensor data, the city staff learned that lighting and “vapor deficit” were the most critical metrics to enable effective plant care. Scaling this sensor system saved staff time, increased plant health, and was all done at an incredibly low price point. That’s a home run.

Meanwhile, the county of San Mateo, CA, is testing multiple IoT solutions through what it calls SMC Labs. These pilot projects are looking for base hits: small wins that can be scaled into production. These projects include:

  • parking availability
  • water conservation
  • localized air quality and environmental monitoring
  • real-time tracking of mobile assets
  • pedestrian and outdoor space utilization
  • optimized and predictive waste collection.

The county has multiple external partners and solutions providers, who are incentivized to find scalable applications. This public-private partnership structure transfers some of the development cost to the private sector, while minimizing the financial risk to local taxpayers.

In the city of San Leandro, CA (where I am the CTO), we bundled a multi-million-dollar streetlight LED retrofit project with the construction of an IoT-connected smart streetlight system with controls. Effectively, the energy savings from the new lighting system covered the entire construction cost of the network. With the network controlling the city’s streetlights, we now have a completed, functional citywide IoT platform to explore additional use cases.

Staying Local with IoT Innovation

Some will argue that cash-strapped local government agencies should avoid the risks of constructing IoT networks. They require specialized expertise to build and maintain, will gobble up staff time, and project failures can be costly. The 4G/5G cellular networks include IoT networks that the government agency can subscribe to as a service, easing deployment and implementation challenges. So, the common thinking goes, the public sector is best served by waiting for the IoT market to mature.

While such an approach is safer, it nonetheless has drawbacks. The as-a-service model will come with high recurring annual costs and, perhaps more critically, agencies will not have control of these networks. This model will severely restrict their ability to innovate and develop new solutions and partnerships. In other words, cellular IoT options are likely to be narrower in what they support, leading to vendor lock-in and limiting smart city innovation.

Instead, the public sector should start innovating with IoT on their own. The local governments in our case studies are proving it can be done cost effectively, while minimizing risk. The smart city/community movement can realize its potential by identifying, testing, scaling, and sharing successful IoT use-cases now--and not waiting for others to solve for them the future.

This is how we will figure out the Municipal IoT.

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This article was also published at IIOT World, where Intel is a Founder’s Circle Partner. 


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