6 trends that will define smart cities in 2018

A new year tends to be a time for renewal in many aspects, with a particular focus on improvement. Whether resolutions involve kicking old habits or beginning a new activity, the changes usually all come back to advancement.

The same holds true in the smart cities space. A new year presents the opportunity to reflect on the trends that shaped cities during the previous year, while preparing for the next round of opportunities for evolution. Some predicted city trends are fresh, intimidating concepts, while others are receiving renewed attention when examined in new contexts.

Smart Cities Dive has compiled the following list of trends that are expected to influence the smart city space in 2018. 

1. Equitable innovation

In 2017, the number of cities relying on or devising a comprehensive smart city plan — as opposed to implementing a few innovative projects without an overall smart plan — dramatically increased. For example, leaders in Washington, DC follow a master plan and those in Philadelphia are drawing up their large-scale roadmap to transform into a smart city. 

These extensive smart city plans place a renewed focus on inclusivity, particularly as it applies to the installation and distribution of smart projects. The cities are made up of diverse populations covering different socioeconomic statuses that each have different needs. Recognizing and embracing such differences can prevent divisive strategies that negatively impact a city, such as only implementing innovations in wealthy neighborhoods or installing technologies that don't benefit the population at that location.

Last year's increase in smart city plans and the growing interest in the industry had more people murmuring about equity. A research report from the National League of Cities urged equitable modernization or else cities run the risk of widening the gap between the rich and the poor and among races, which is a destabilizing factor. Equity and inclusivity also came up during the Washington Post's "Transformers: Cities" event, at which thought leaders touched on the dangers of ignoring or underserving a community's most vulnerable residents. The trend is gaining steam, and 2018 will likely be the year that the murmurs about inclusivity turns to shouts.

2. Electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure expansion

The electric vehicle industry has seemingly teetered on the edge of mainstream acceptance for decades. The EV concept became widely known in the United States in the 1990s, but the vehicles' popularity has waxed and waned since then. Interest has boomed again in recent years for a number of reasons, including better vehicle batteries and incentives or rebates for green vehicle ownership.

One of the major barriers for EVs is the lack of refueling infrastructure. Some people view electric vehicles as less practical than gas-powered vehicles when considering that EV owners might only be able to recharge their car on their own property if they have a dedicated outlet installed. Many states have incentives for residents who own EVs, and some offer incentives to residents and businesses that install EV charging equipment. However, many of the incentive programs focus on charging infrastructure at residential properties and not throughout the greater community. Atlanta recently took action to combat that problem and accelerate EV infrastructure construction by passing regulations requiring developers to install electrical infrastructure that supports EV chargers in every new residential and commercial building. Expect to see other municipalities following suit with similar measures. 

3. 5G technology

Tech aficionados from all imaginable industries are anxious for the CES 2018 conference next week, and 5G is expected to dominate many of the conversations. Verizon and its partners already started testing 5G in a handful of U.S. cities, including Houston, Miami, Seattle and Ann Arbor, MI. 

Smart city technology is one niche area repeatedly mentioned as benefiting in a big way once 5G officially rolls out, which both Verizon and AT&T anticipate should happen — at the very least, in a limited form — late this year. The high-speed service is expected to better support the sensors in and communication between many Internet of Things devices. It will reportedly help existing devices — such as public safety cameras — operate more smoothly and effectively while paving the way for efficiently introducing new ones — such as autonomous vehicles. 

4. Cybersecurity

With the rapid growth in the use of connected devices, data and analytics comes additional concern about cyber attacks. "Cybersecurity in IoT is a multifaceted problem," said Filip Ponulak, principal data scientist at Site 1001. The cybersecurity challenges consumers face with their personal connected devices are different than those experienced by businesses or municipalities. A data breach at the city level, for instance, potentially could expose sensitive information about hundreds of thousands of people or cause widespread service outages. 

Businesses and municipalities increasingly are seeking more secure ways of integrating IoT technologies and forming partnerships to increase protections. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown recently launched a new cyber initiative, Cyber Oregon, to increase awareness about cybersecurity and to emphasize that it is a shared responsibility. As such, the initiative goes beyond just protecting government data and offers education and resources to protect all individuals and businesses from cyber attacks. Oregon's effort will likely blaze a trail for similar state and local measures to take shape in 2018, especially as more municipalities recognize that the cybersecurity industry is also a hotbed for job growth. 

Ponulak predicts that this year small- and medium-sized businesses will make a greater push to increase their internal cybersecurity solution capabilities, while municipalities will turn to well-established third-party cybersecurity vendors that have proven track records.

5. Blockchain‚Äč

Coinciding with a push for better cybersecurity is the use of blockchain technology. Information shared via blockchain is considered more secure and resistant to alterations. Integrating blockchain into smart cities could better connect all of the city services while boosting security and transparency.

Some ways blockchain is expected to influence cities is through smart contracts, which help with billing, processing transactions and handling facilities management. "Smart contracts are self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement between buyer and seller directly written into lines of code," Ponulak said. "They permit trusted transactions and agreements to be carried out among disparate parties without the need for a mediating third party, making the process safer, cheaper and faster."

For facilities management, smart contracts can be used to execute repeated supply or work orders. They can also be used in smart grids to facilitate energy sharing, which is a concept currently being developed and invested in by companies like LO3 Energy and Siemens. Look for additional uses of blockchain — such as Moscow's recent addition of a blockchain e-voting system — to emerge in 2018.

6. Microtransit

In 2017, a number of transit agencies called a truce, of sorts, with ride-sharing companies, which they previously viewed as competition to transit ridership. Transportation officials saw that the public had embraced the on-demand, flexible structure of ride-sharing and a handful are now experimenting with microtransit partnerships.

Microtransit programs typically center on improving first mile/last mile connections by using on-demand shuttles or smaller vehicles that pick up multiple people going in the same direction, as opposed to buses or trains that run on a fixed route. Phoenix partnered with Lyft to get riders to and from bus stops, and several California municipalities have partnered with TransLoc for a transit/ride-share hybrid. Los Angeles preliminary launched the groundwork for the largest microtransit system thus far when it issued a request for proposals in the fall for a partner to develop and build its program.

Some people view microtransit systems as better mobility options than traditional transit for aging residents and those with disabilities. They're also being tested as transportation in frequently underserved areas, such as suburban, rural and low-income areas. This year should bring a lot more interest in and expansion of microtransit as cities look for ways to increase inclusivity and boost sagging transit ridership.