Cool Things in Government: NIST's Smart Cities Framework

This week we are featuring NIST's Smart Cities efforts and in particular its recently released Smart Cities Framework. Smart Cities has been a buzz word for many years now. While many of the benefits of the technologies behind Smart Cities are compelling: open data, cloud, sensors, analytics, etc., it seems most Smart Cities efforts end up as a hodgepodge of apps or a cluster of projects without any over all framework. You might like one city's pothole app but it isn't a comprehensive and scalable strategy. In other words, it has been a marketing term and not anything tangible or really definable. 

We commend NIST for using the convening power of government to bring together many of the key stakeholders to put some more meat on the bones. We were particularly intrigued about the trade off between things working together (interoperability) and innovation. This is a trade off all of us know about as we get more devices and services from different providers. It's great that my Apple Watch controls my Apple Music but if I subscribe to Spotify, it doesn't work very well. We are seeing companies trying to keep customers in as walled a garden as possible while other companies offer alternative platforms or one off innovations.

This type of walled garden just isn't possible with Smart Cities. The technologies and geographies involved are simply too varied and complex. If a single architecture were imposed it would stifle new solutions. As the report says:

"If you standardize everything you freeze out innovation. If you standardize nothing, you get non-interoperable clusters that are not easily integrated." 

Government has to walk a particularly straight line on this subject making sure to emphasize areas where citizens are ill served by systems that are siloed without favoring certain solutions over others and choking off innovation. The report's recommendation to find a few key leverage points for standardization is a sensible approach.

In the long run we'll most likely see several key platforms begin to dominate the space as it requires a breadth and scale that few companies can provide. It is somewhat analogous to cloud services where Amazon, Google, and Microsoft own the market with several much smaller hangers on chasing behind. In fact it could be those providers who provide the building blocks of the Smart Cities environment. On top of those platforms we'll see an entire eco-system of applications and services that will have varying levels of interoperability depending on the application.

NIST's Framework can provide a baseline from which to watch that ecosystem grow and a way to make sense of the new environment as it emerges. As Smart Cities moves from marketing to deployable strategy, NIST and the stakeholders they have assembled can play a key role in helping communities understand the full range of choices and tradeoffs available to them.