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Smart City technology doesn’t always look like a smart move for cities

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Don’t violate a parking meter while this guy is watching.

Cities have a hard time defining what return on investment means. That was one of the themes at a Smart Cities forum organized by the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley on Thursday.

Executives from several start up companies talked about the challenge of selling municipalities on a new way of doing business. One company, Streetline, aims to “solve parking blindness,” according to general manager Kurt Beucheler. He says that it’s easier to convince a city to install sensors and networks to monitor parking because there’s a clear revenue stream – meter maids can swoop down on overtime parkers more efficiently – and the cost of the system is paid by the same department that brings in the money. That makes it easy to calculate ROI.

More commonly though, municipal decision making is spread over many stakeholders and the ultimate policy makers – politicians – do not necessarily put a high priority on stronger financial results. Laura Schewel, CEO of Streetlight Data, a data mining company focused on urban applications, said that cities do not typically follow a rational decision making process. She pointed to electric vehicle charging stations as an example of something with an emotional hit that makes for a nice ribbon cutting ceremony but does relatively little to improve traffic or cut vehicle emissions.

Alicia Asin, the CEO of Libelium, a sensor technology player, likes the idea of bringing private companies into the mix, either as investors in the underlying platforms or as customers for the data generated by Smart City systems. Crowdsourcing plays a role too, with citizens finding their own value in data.

She sees future Smart City opportunities in Europe, where it’s easier to sell high-concept pilot projects, and in developing countries where new technology faces little competition from existing infrastructure. “There’s a lot of money there, and they’re looking at the pilots we’re doing in Europe,” she said.