Examining Common Barriers to Smart City Implementation

City Illustration

By Luis Casado & Eric Rensel

Leaders in the water sector are all too familiar with the numbers. The average age of our country’s dams is 56 years old. The demands on wastewater treatment plants will grow nearly 25 percent in the next 15 years. Six billion gallons of treated drinking water are wasted every day.

These figures paint a stark picture of the reality of the water industry in our country. There is no silver bullet, no one solution to address years of deteriorating infrastructure, limited funding, and increasing demand.

But one approach is gaining traction. The implementation of smart cities technology is being heralded as a way to conserve our water resources, save money and energy, and improve the quality of life for the people we serve. In our experience, the frequency with which city leaders inquire about smart cities solutions is increasing at a rapid pace. Don’t be put off by the term “cities.” With proper planning and teamwork, all communities can take advantage of smart technologies.

However, very few municipalities are embracing total Information and Communication Technology (ICT) implementation. Why? Despite geographic or demographic differences, the hesitation seems to come down to the same three hurdles: institutional barriers, limited funding, and data integration.

Institutional Barriers

Current city governance and budgets are segmented. In many communities there is little, if any, communication between the various service agencies. But if smart cities concepts are to work, outdated boundary walls must crumble. For example, the department of health will have to work with the department of public works, the water utility, and the department of transportation.

Gannett Fleming recently worked with a sewer department undertaking a water line replacement and resurfacing project. Our project was to be based on the municipality’s capital projects GIS system, but the sewer layer had not been updated because of a breakdown in communication between departments. Work was delayed because of outdated information caused by institutional barriers. This is a classic example of how the lack of interplay between governmental agencies can lead to missed opportunities or delayed improvements.

Interagency communications is necessary because the smart cities concept is centered on the data that give citizens the most efficient services. If smart cities are truly embraced, we may even see budgets based on the service provided, not the department.

Limited Funding

Cash-strapped cities are often asked to provide more services with fewer resources. However, closing the door on smart cities initiatives solely because of funding is short-sighted. Implementing ICT solutions can save money and resources in the long run. For instance, it is well established that smart metering can identify costly leaks and leak patterns, enabling the problem to be repaired. But there are more ways ICT can be a long-term money-saver.

To offer a real-world application, Gannett Fleming created custom flow models of water supply systems that simulate daily operation for a lengthy period of historical hydrologic record, often exceeding 80 years. These site-specific computer models are capable of simulating a variety of operating assumptions, variations in usage, conservation measures, complex regulatory restrictions, water quality parameters, and many other factors.

Our dams and hydraulics team developed one such model to assist a water supplier making daily operating decisions affecting about 250,000 people. Initial analyses showed that providing reliable water supply in years of drought required supplemental pumping from another source. Activating the pumps too soon or in non-drought conditions would be a costly waste of electricity and energy. Activating the pumps too late into the drought would present the risk of running out of water. Based on current data, the computer application analyzes patterns that drive the operation of pumps, creating a cost- and energy-saving opportunity for the city.

Data Integration

Many cities are already collecting data or have access to information, but are not yet using it wisely or efficiently. City leaders must begin to think more critically about the data they already have.
Let’s look at a practical, but hypothetical, example. What if our water system could communicate with our transportation data? Most people probably leave work an hour or so after they take a shower. If smart meters could communicate with transportation operations, the lane management systems could be prepared for a spike in traffic about an hour after the rise in water usage. Take it a step further, and citizens who sign up for alerts could be notified that the roads will be busier in about an hour and can plan accordingly.

There is unlimited potential for operational efficiencies if we can establish a network where communications is continuous and integrated.

Getting Smarter

The communities moving forward with smart cities innovation are home to executive leadership willing to embrace innovation. The “this is the way it has always been done” mentality does not align with a smart community.

That does not mean a smarter city is created overnight. City leaders and utility managers shouldn’t be daunted by the vast amount of data and technology available to them. Creating a smart community is not a massive undertaking that happens all at once. Rather, we must start with small, incremental ways to wisely use the data already available. Begin to encourage collaboration across sectors. That is a smarter way to manage the resources entrusted to us.


Luis Casado
Senior Vice President | Gannett Fleming

Luis Casado, P.E., is a senior vice president and serves as Southeast Region director and deputy director of the Water Business Line at Gannett Fleming. With more than 24 years of experience, Casado has led some of the most complex infrastructure projects across the southern U.S. and Central and South America.

Eric E. Rensel
Vice President | Gannett Fleming

Eric Rensel is a vice president at Gannett Fleming and a leader in advancing the firm’s connected and automated vehicle (CV/AV) and smart cities capabilities. He specializes in innovative ways for transportation agencies to mitigate congestion by improving roadway operational efficiency.

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