Earlier this week at NIST, we brought together a diverse group of people who will have a profound influence on the future of our cities and the services provided to their citizens. These 300 leaders from government, industry, and academia came to attend an event called the Global City Team Challenge (GCTC) Tech Jam.
The GCTC program, launched in 2014 by NIST with a number of partners from the federal government and industry, is one way that NIST is supporting the Administration’s Smart City Initiative announced last September.
Two of the questions I get most often when I mention this topic are: What is a “smart city”? And why is NIST involved?
I’ll offer my perspective, and I encourage you to use the “Comment” box below to chime in with your thoughts.
A “smart city” refers to a city or community that takes advantage of the powerful information and communication technologies now available to provide new and measurable benefits in the services typically associated with cities. These services range from transportation and emergency response to energy management and health care.
GCTC breakout session
Sokwoo Rhee (far left) sitting down with an international group of GCTC participants at this week’s Tech Jam. Credit: C. Robinson/NIST
“Smart cities” is a hot topic these days around the world. A November 2015 report from IDC predicted that, in the next three years, one-third of all medium-sized and large cities will define their smart city road map. In India, for example, 20 cities were recently named first-round winners in the country’s Smart Cities Challenge. In Europe, cities such as Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Barcelona, Spain, are advancing quickly with their smart city projects. Some of these countries’ expert joined us here this week, along with experts from Japan, Korea, Nepal, and Nigeria.
The merging of the world of information technology (think “cyber”) with the objects found in the world around us (think “physical”) is leading to a new type of machine/system/entity that we here at NIST call a “cyber-physical system.” Two examples of a cyber-physical system are the smart grid and the Internet of Things. (We’ll be talking more about The Internet of Things in future blog articles.) The various smart city projects being discussed this week at NIST are also cyber-physical systems.
To give you a better sense of what these technical terms mean in the “real world,” here are two examples presented this week.
  • My professional background is in system controls and wireless communications, so I’ll start with a smart city example making good use of recent advances in communication technology. Here in Washington, D.C., one team is working on the Pennsylvania Ave. corridor, which we like to refer to as “America’s Main Street.” Using infrastructure such as light poles, the project will include an embedded, pervasive mesh Wi-Fi network, as well as CCTV-enabled smart cameras. The network will provide free Internet access to the public, secure services to public safety entities, and extended connectivity for environmental sensors. Capabilities will include wayfinding, parking demand management, improved maintenance response times, and emergency response management.
  • Related specifically to smart transportation, a team in Portland, Ore., is developing the “Connected Intelligent Transportation” project. It’s a sensor-connected “smart corridor” where transit data, traffic signalization, and air quality sensing are all accessible in a data portal that will use visualization and analytics to reduce air pollution. The purpose is to identify the effects of traffic signal systems and rapid transit on neighborhood air quality—information that will help local government make good transportation policy choices. The many citizens of Portland who use bikes, take public transport, and walk could soon see the traffic management system change in a way that optimizes the benefits of their modes of transportation.
These are just two examples. At this week’s meetings, more than 55 GCTC other teams (we call them “action clusters”) presented their smart city projects.
As you might guess, smart city initiatives require input from people with expertise in a number of areas. A typical action cluster includes experts from municipal governments, cutting-edge technology industries, and academia. These are folks that wouldn’t normally be spending much time together professionally. Through our GCTC program, however, NIST brings teams of cities together, ensuring that the solutions that emerge meet real needs, and connects them to experts in industry and academia to put the private sector in the lead on innovation.
A second important NIST role is to encourage and enable the establishment of standards that ensure “interoperability.”
“Interoperability” is an eight-syllable word (invented and used, of course, by engineers, technocrats, and bureaucrats) that simply refers to the ability of diverse systems and their components to work together, often in a “plug-and-play” fashion.
One of the goals of our Global City Teams Challenge (and the closely related “IoT-Enabled Cities Framework” project) is to help all these different cities, academic researchers, and technology manufacturers to exchange information and ideas so that we will achieve greater interoperability.
We know from past experience that standards and interoperability:
  • enable today’s technology investments to remain valuable in the future;
  • catalyze innovation;
  • support consumer choice;
  • reduce costs; and
  • open global markets.
And, by the way, that global market is very large. One report from the UK recently estimated that the smart cities market will exceed $400 billion globally by 2020.
In the smart city community, as we’ve experienced here at NIST this week, there is great enthusiasm and promise. We’re also excited about it at NIST, because it gives us yet another opportunity to carry out our mission: To promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.


Sokwoo Rhee is Associate Director of the Cyber-Physical Systems Program at NIST. He is currently leading the Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC), which aims to create a replicable and scalable model for collaborative incubation and deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) and Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) solutions to improve the quality of life in smart cities around the world. He previously served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow on CPS, a program by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He loves working with the best minds across the globe to make the world a better place for future generations.