New advancements in technology and data collection can help communities successfully tackle challenges by working smarter instead of harder.
Demographic, economic, and other changes are presenting communities with unprecedented challenges and opportunities. And there are reasons to be hopeful. A combination of smart technology and smart people can drive the development of smart communities.
Change is a Constant
Demographic shifts and fiscal fluctuations impact communities around the globe, prompting community leaders to adapt by changing the way they think and operate.
In part, these changes are driven by the rapid increase in urban population. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, predicts that by 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in cities. Today, more than half the earth’s population lives in cities. By 2050, that number will climb to two-thirds.
Population growth is not solely the domain of megacities. Even smaller cities must plan for high population growth rates. Commerce City, Colorado’s population grew from 20,991 to 45,913 between 2000 and 2010 — that’s a rate of 118 percent. The city is expected to grow another 31 percent by 2019, according to Esri’s demographic projections.
With the expected increases in population, cities need to adjust to accommodate the new citizens who will soon be at their doorstep. Those citizens will require energy resources, transportation, public safety, and housing. New residents will want safe, livable communities that provide satisfying work experiences. Unlike in past eras, communities planning for growth now must factor in potential impacts from climate change and more dramatic weather conditions. How will existing city infrastructure and systems address the added demands? How can new systems be most efficient and effective?
Population demographics are changing too. In many communities, the population is aging. Other communities are seeing an influx of immigrants. Shifts in demographics bring about a need for new and different services. For an aging population, more health and transportation services might be required. Immigrants are likely to need specialized education to help with language barriers. In the workforce, new demographics impact the skill sets, needs, and expectations of workers. How can local governments adjust services to support the changing needs of their population?
As governments work to provide services, citizens — especially Millennials — are demanding more transparency. Citizens want to see what’s going on inside their local government. How can government provide more transparency and be more inclusive without slowing down the delivery of services? Better yet, how can government work together with young, tech-savvy citizens to address community needs in more innovative ways?
Not only do citizens expect transparency, they also expect higher levels of customer service, on a par with what they get from businesses. Now is the age of the consumer. To remain competitive and attract highly skilled citizens and valuable businesses, communities need to evolve quickly to improve services and appeal. Local governments also need to create and foster a vibrant, inviting culture — a place where bright, young innovators will want to live and work. Small and mid-size cities are challenged to provide a desirable lifestyle and environment for economic development so they do not risk losing people to larger cities that already have so many amenities.
As if those challenges were not enough, most local governments have been through a period of reduced budgets. Insufficient funds means aging infrastructure is not updated or replaced. How can communities stay competitive, meet the needs of growing and changing populations, and accomplish more with the resources they have when it’s already a struggle to maintain existing infrastructure and levels of service? As local government budgets rebound from the economic downturn, where will the wisest investments be made?
Reasons to Be Hopeful
Fortunately, new advancements in technology and data collection can help communities successfully tackle challenges by working smarter instead of harder. We live in a time in which just about anything can be tracked and monitored using sensors. Smartphones, with apps galore, are all but ubiquitous; cloud computing keeps getting better; and we can share data online and visualize plans in 3D. With the right technology, every community can become a smart community — a place that is more livable, sustainable, and economically vibrant. The technology that will help our communities make the transition is spatial. Smart communities will require geographic information system (GIS) technology.
Smart technology, together with smart people, will propel communities even further. We will be able to engage citizens, nongovernmental organizations (NGO), businesses, and the academic community in the problem-solving process. Imagine the potential for something amazing — a community that is greater than the sum of its parts; a city that is a true hub of innovation and economic growth; a place that is livable, sustainable, and resilient.
There are steep challenges ahead, but there are tools and a pathway to successfully address those challenges. Leaders in local government probably already have the tools they need. They just have to start using them in a different way.