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What's really holding smart cities back? (Hint: it's not tech)

New technologies like advanced lighting and water-saving sensors are already here, but it will take a reordering of the job market and public buying principles.

From the energy sources powering skyscrapers to the water flowing through underground sewers to food growing on urban plots of land, cities are increasingly a focal point of the resource scarcity challenges facing society at large.

Taken together, the efficiency with which businesses and consumers use resources in an urban setting stands to make a major imprint on the climate goals being set by cities around the world, particularly since cities already account for 70 percent of global carbon emissions.

If you buy into the hype around smart cities, that's where technology comes in.

Sensors mounted on infrastructure to track traffic patterns and water use represent the array of connect Internet of Things devices being marketed to city planners. Next-gen lighting, vertical farming systems and zero-waste solutions represent other nodes of activity within the realm of smart cities.

While there is no shortage of big-time efficiency gains on the horizon, speakers at the VERGE 16 conference this week in Santa Clara, California, said that the next step is meshing those emerging technologies with existing economic and political systems.

“The technology solutions are there," said the City of Oakland's Chief Resilience Officer, Kirain Jain, during a VERGE talk on Wednesday. "What we’re really looking at are governance issues.”

Take lighting as an example. Sure, you've heard of connected lighting that allows users to monitor energy consumption via the cloud. But what about lighting piped into high tech downtown offices via ethernet, allowing employees to adjust the brightness of their individual workspaces?

“We know that the need for lighting will increase by about 35 percent by 2030," said Nicola Kimm, head of sustainability for Philips Lighting, during a VERGE talk. "Digitization is a mega-trend that will help us."

From Philips to Google-owned Nest to a range of smaller companies jumping into the smart city fray, one big unanswered question is how new technologies on the market will mesh with existing public protocols for purchasing new systems.

“The procurement people are suddenly the hottest people," said Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jen Pahlka.

In addition to organizations like Pahlka's that train tech talent for jobs working with cities, she said more cities are posting their technical needs on developer hotbeds like GitHub.

“We just put out an RFP last week that had the words 'user-centric design,'" Jain added.

Trickle-down tech?

While changing the way deals get done at the city scale is one crucial financial component of realizing the multibillion-dollar potential of smart cities, there are also more existential challenges to keep in mind.

How labor markets will be impacted by the rise of automation is one example, particularly in cities where income gaps are already widening and contributing to social instability.

"We have to think about how all these technologies come together in a more sustainable economy," said O'Reilly Media Founder and CEO Tim O'Reilly.

Part of the challenge can lie in assumptions that technical breakthroughs will automatically achieve mass impact with smart city technologies, said Kimberly Lewis, a minister and faith leader as well as a senior vice president for the U.S. Green Building Council.

A lot of our focus has been on moving the top 20 percent of the market.

“A lot of our focus has been on moving the top 20 percent of the market," Lewis said. "We thought the trickle-down effects would really begin to effect low- and moderate-income communities."

Particularly with concepts like community solar starting to gain traction in some markets, how to finance increased accessibility to technologies that stand to make an out-sized impact on city dwellers is another major question.

“What is the strength of a pool, as opposed to looking at the credit characteristics of individuals?” said Trenton Allen, managing director and CEO or Sustainable Capital Advisors.

While the technical side of change often seems like the major obstacle, O'Reilly gave the example of now-commonplace Google Maps to underscore the speed and ubiquity that technology can now achieve.

“You have this transition from amazement to banality all the time," he said.

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