The Role of Communication Technology in City Building

Larry Mason is a Strong Towns member. Today he shares a guest essay about the future of communication technology in cities.

Ask a planner about how the city will expand its information infrastructure for residents and businesses and they will most likely answer, "Oh, you want the IT department. Second door on the left down the hall."

Is there a Strong Towns approach to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure in building sustainable, resilient city and town administrations?

Ask the IT department how they integrate their data sets and publish open data so entrepreneurs can access it and most likely the answer will be: “We don’t know what is in those datasets. Each department ‘owns’ its proprietary data, and we can’t publish it anyway because of privacy concerns.”

Is there a Strong Towns approach to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure in building sustainable, resilient city and town administrations, technology-enhanced placemaking, and a better citizen experience?

The answer is yes. Some cities are beginning to understand the value of data and the technology that both collects and utilizes that information. As more data in these cities becomes available and accessible via open data standards, opportunities for smart city applications and public facing information systems abound. Cities like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami, Cincinnati, Washington DC, and Nashville now have or are looking to hire Chief Data or Technology Officers. While those roles are slightly different, both show a commitment to understanding the ICT, computing, and a smart devices environment. Yet for many mid-sized cities, smaller suburban municipalities and county governments, that all seems out of reach and too expensive for current budgets. "We have roads to pave, sidewalks to install, sewer and water systems in need of repair..." and the list goes on.

Anthony Townsend, in his seminal book Smart Cities, talks about the ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up approach to building smart cities. Unfortunately, too many small city administrations believe that the only way they can obtain a ‘smart city’ or even an open data level of computing technology is through a foundation or government block grant. In the meantime, they will continue to pay annual licensing and maintenance fees based on "vendor lock-in."

So what would a Strong Towns approach to building computer networks, ICT utilities and “smart city” systems look like? First, to be clear, the city’s computer network and the city’s ICT utilities are two different things. However, as more computing power moves toward the network edge, as a result of “smart city” devices, the two are becoming more entangled. Therein lies the opportunity for a more incremental way for towns to build on better IT strategies.

When a developer or a city takes on a major infrastructure project even that's financed with a block grant, bond issuance or even private funds, there is an understanding that the governing jurisdiction will eventually take ownership of the infrastructure and be responsible for future maintenance, repair or replacement. That is the total cost of ownership. With hardscape or physical infrastructure, there is a lot of data regarding the lifecycle of such constructions and maintenance—a predictable life-cycle. In the past, procuring computer equipment has been like trying to buy shoes for a pre-teen child: The feet will outgrow the shoes long before the shoes are worn out. So it is with much computer and technology equipment.

There are inexpensive and incremental ways for even the smallest jurisdictions to maintain networks and get “smart.”

Computing and digital data collection by departments have been around less than forty years. Big cities, prosperous counties and of course state and federal governments had big mainframe computers before then, but those computers had a fraction of the power of today’s internet connected “smartphone”. During the 1980’s and 1990’s the big expense in computing was data storage. After the turn of the century, the cost of digital storage began to decrease rapidly. But with so much data piling up, the speed of moving large amounts of bits for processing and/or storage started to become the driving expense. Now we are seeing transmission cost dropping as the technology moves forward. So with ample options to store data in the cloud, and powerful computing capability being moved to small form computing devices on the edge (i.e. the the network edge: in vehicles, on the street, in the infrastructure, street lights, parking meters, park benches, and cameras everywhere) there are inexpensive and incremental ways for even the smallest jurisdictions to maintain networks and get “smart.”   

That's not to paint the picture too serendipitously; there are pitfalls to be avoided if the technology is to be sustainable and resilient over the long run. Just as with other kinds of infrastructure, to know the costs is to understand both the capital and ongoing costs of infrastructure installation, storage,  transmission, hosting internal and cloud-based applications, software maintenance and finally human resource costs.

Here's a look at two key aspects of information and communication technology that cities should consider:


Who owns the fiber and equipment? Many cities competed to have Google install fiber optic cable throughout their jurisdiction. Some of it has been laid and it continues to be ongoing. In response, AT&T and some of the cable (coaxial) companies have also been in a race to install fiber in many areas. Chattanooga, TN and Huntsville, AL are some of the few cities in the US to install and own the fiber network. While Chattanooga sells network service, Huntsville Utilities leases the dark fiber to competing companies in the business of selling network service to business and consumers. By owning the fiber network, the city now has an asset which can theoretically bring revenue to pay for operational and maintenance. Is that smart? Only the future can tell.

Photo by  Redd Angelo

Photo by Redd Angelo

There are many vendors that handle data and backup services on the ‘cloud' i.e. data centers connected to the internet. Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are the giants in this field of vendors, but there are others. This is a good option for smaller jurisdictions as it allows for professional backup. Depending on how much data a small jurisdiction has, multiple vendors is not a bad idea, and in most cases, storage costs are not that high compared to internal storage and HR costs.

Transmission vendors such as Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and soon Google are, for now, the major carriers, but 5G (Fifth Generation) cellular data transmission may change the data transfer technology landscape yet again. Soon it may not be necessary to run fiber cable to small towns and rural areas to achieve Gigabyte plus speeds. 

Open Data and Smart Devices

Cities and towns can now look to many open sourced and cost effective computing options in the collection, processing and utilization of devices that will show video, control access, run smart traffic and manage parking systems. Many of these systems can be inexpensive and modular. This provides for flexible systems that do not have high implementation costs. Using off the shelf hardware and open source software and providing open data access will allow the community to experiment and most importantly avoid “vendor lock-in.”

Our cities and towns need good communication to stay resilient, and communication technology is a growing part of that. Local governments should think critically about how they manage and utilize ICT if they aspire to become Strong Towns.

(Top photo by Markus Spiske)

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About the Author

Larry Mason has a masters degree in Urban Planning but has spent much of his career as a GIS, database, and software application developer. Most recently, he consults on web-based dashboards for IoT devices. He is passionate about all aspects of the human habitat ecosystem, transportation, ICT, economic development, trade, culture, arts and public space. He's particularly fascinated by projects at the intersection of technology and citizen interaction/experience in cityscapes.