Do I have to be smart to live in or visit a “smart city”? What really makes a city “smart,” or is this just another trend? These were just a few of the many questions on my mind as I flew to the ARC Advisory Group’s Digitizing and Securing Industry, Infrastructure, and Cities forum in Orlando last week. Given the potential impacts across the supply chain, I was eager to listen to the speakers and learn as much as possible. Over the course of four days, I heard some excellent presentations on cyber security, communication standards, artificial intelligence, machine learning, bots, supply chain, organizational anthropology and much more. If I were to sum up the content from the week, it would be that the disruption caused by the internet and increased connectivity in our business lives will be magnified 10-fold by the emergence of smart cities.

Let’s start with my first question: Do I have to be smart to live in or visit a smart city? Well, one would hope so. But fundamentally, the idea behind a smart city is that through digitalization, decision making is simplified, and in most cases, automated. Today, for instance, students on some college campuses can find out when a specific bus is going to arrive at a specific stop via an app. While this type of technology advancement appears small in nature, it is the first step toward envisioning smart city activities. Consider a very near future in which autonomous vehicles, communicating in a networked fashion, could enable these buses to get “smarter.” The idea of transportation that could engage with you – without any human interaction – and allow you to focus on more important decisions sounds handy. Now, imagine if that same bus is networked with a retail outlet. When someone makes a purchase via a mobile phone, the package could then be delivered to the buyer’s bus stop, making the online purchase and delivery a very seamless process. This is just one example of what could be enabled in a smart city, and all an individual would need is to be smart enough to use a mobile phone.

What exactly is a smart city? There are a variety of definitions available, including discussions on what makes up a city, so I’ll share my interpretation. A smart city is one that has networked components that allows information to flow among various, connected entities and to be shared to gain insights, enable activities and generally enhance the quality of life and business within a city environment. The bus example is just one facet of this, but there are many others. Simple things such as trash containers with sensors that emit a signal once placed at the curb for more efficient waste management route planning, or delivery trucks receiving digital signals from traffic monitoring systems that alert them to avoid high congestion areas are just a couple of the potential applications of a networked, smart city. Not all industries will easily lend themselves to direct smart city integration; oil and chemical manufacturers, for example, may lag in determining clear opportunities. But even in those industries, data and insights from customers are critical and can help optimize business processes, improve productivity and decrease time to market.

When integrated networks of suppliers and services become an integral part of a smart city, the ability to identify and address residents’ needs becomes more of a possibility. As these networked environments increase, greater visibility into consumer patterns and how to best address them can emerge. Consider the amount of data available that tracks purchase patterns, GPS details, mobile queries and more; all these can be leveraged and analyzed to create predictive patterns. For business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies, sharing these insights across networks in a smart city would enable them to ensure the right items, in the right amount are delivered where they will be most likely wanted, at the right time.

Will smart cities be a trend that comes and goes? Given the potential for tremendous business, social, economic and environmental impact, it is a trend we must not ignore. At the forum last week, a large power company spoke about becoming more customer centric. Its customers want more choice and control, and want the power company to engage with them. By monitoring social media feeds and leveraging chat bots, the company is evolving its business model to include more flexible payment options, advising its clients of impending weather impacts on power outages and much more. This kind of pivot is a great example of how organizations are beginning to consider and adopt smart city capabilities. While this will not occur immediately, ongoing and incremental enhancements to a city’s networks and wireless infrastructures will be key and will have broad impacts across the digital supply chain. Just getting started with creating a digitally connected enterprise – acknowledging that the target won’t stop moving and accepting that value may be captured incrementally – should be the primary focus. Globally, America is behind in addressing this pivot toward smart cities, but given the high attendance at the ARC Advisory Group’s forum and an increase in articles appearing online, it seems the concept is starting to get the attention it deserves.

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