If you must ask why “smart cities” are more interesting than “data driven” business, just ponder the quirks of city procurement. Though infuriating to tech vendors, they are a mix of infuriating and fascinating to those with a wider view. It’s the kind of mix you feel when your puppy poops on the rug.
Transportation consultant Bob McQueen tells of one case in which “smart” takes a messy path. It starts with freeways in dense fog, common in the California Central Valley. The almond, apricot, cherry, peach and pistachio orchards thrive, but drivers sometimes die. For one driver after another, a car or semi trailer they didn’t know was there appears just a few feet ahead. Most drivers were already going slow, but not slow enough. In one prolonged instant, cars and trucks plow into each other one after the other. Suddenly cars and drivers are as still as the nearby trees.
Warning systems do exist and have been around for a while already. Now a new product offers a slightly different proposition. The new kid on the road is OptaSense, now represented by transportation consultant Robert McQueen.
Instead of using data collected by proprietary roadside fiber, this one collects data through existing, government-installed fiber. Competing systems feed much more data than the new product but at a higher cost. The new product collects data over local highway administration’s own hardware. Yet, McQueen says, OptaSense provides results at least as good as the competing technology.
Easy sell? Not quite. State departments of transportation, the typical buyer, tend to look first not at the technology on offer. They look first for a local consultant to be their intermediary. Without that person in place, a new vendor usually has a tough time closing the gap and completing a sale no matter how good the product.
Perhaps a highway administration might have other reasons to balk. One reason might be that OptaSense is a mere startup. But even large, well established technology vendors face the same stall. One that McQueen worked with persisted but finally gave up and went home. The puppy grew up but never learned.
This is one reason, perhaps the main one, that seasoned data-technology consultants seem to roll their eyes or just turn to other topics with any mention of “smart cities.”
Will city, regional, or state agencies settle for pileups, aging technology, and unnecessary expense? Here again, just as in business but with ever more human foibles in play, the path to “smart” turns more on personal relations than on the quality of any tech itself.