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Less is more: Why smart technology is thriving in the suburbs

Fast-growing neighbourhoods are the perfect testing ground for the latest connected technologies. Toby Olshanetsky, co-founder and CEO of prooV, highlights a "quiet" technological revolution.


When you think about the most technologically savvy environment, a major metro hub such as New York, San Francisco or London often comes to mind. Yet a technological revolution is quietly happening in small neighbourhoods and suburbs around the world.


From car-free neighbourhood projects in Arizona to $50 million programmes in Australia, suburbs have made great strides in implementing smart technologies outside of large metro areas.


Thanks to higher housing prices and an overall higher cost of living, US census data from 2018 shows fewer populous metro areas dominating the top 10 rankings for population growth. What’s clear is that neighbourhoods are fertile ground in which smart technologies can thrive and even surpass more populated environments.


Amid ever-increasing urbanisation, Internet of Things (IoT) systems are rapidly being piloted and implemented in smart neighbourhoods worldwide.


Size matters


A smart city technology can be loosely defined as one that utilises the latest data and innovation to improve the lives of its citizens, in aspects including transportation, education, sustainability (energy, waste, water), health and security. Whether it’s smart grid solutions that can improve outage detection or smart traffic lights that can monitor traffic flow, each technology is influenced by a variety of factors such as population size, geography, weather, the economy and more.


It’s no surprise, therefore, that these factors can make large-scale implementations slower and more cumbersome. In contrast, fast-growing neighbourhoods are the perfect testing ground for the latest in connected technologies, as running pilots to evaluate the latest innovations in the Internet of Things and other smart solutions can be more cost-effective and efficient.


Suburbs have made great strides in implementing smart technologies outside of large metro areas.


For example, the idea of car-free neighbourhoods is very popular among city governments, but is difficult to implement as simply redesigning street layouts will have a ripple effect on nearby parts of the city and will undoubtedly receive opposition from residents.


This large number of factors force cities like Barcelona to conduct small-scale experiments on a few city blocks with its Superblocks project, while Culdesac brings radical ideas to an entire neighbourhood. The benefits of being small mean that neighbourhoods and suburbs can act more nimbly and swiftly than their larger city counterparts.


An involved community


Citizen engagement can be a major factor in the success of smart city/suburb projects. As a result of low population density, suburban residents often form local organisations such as neighbourhood watches for security and associations that advocate to local governments.


Urban residents, despite their numbers, develop fewer personal relationships with their neighbours and are less likely to be involved in their communities. This distinction plays an important role for smart technologies as success depends on the community’s participation and reception.


Smart city/suburb projects are only as useful as the citizens perceive them to be in their daily lives. Technology that is not well understood or fails to address a need will serve no purpose in the eyes of the average citizen. For example, the Vélib’ project by the city of Paris was a bike-sharing programme aiming to alleviate congestion and reduce pollution. After five years, however, citizens did not view the programme as successful and continued to rate air pollution as a major problem.


The benefits of being small means that neighbourhoods and suburbs can act more nimbly and swiftly than their larger city counterparts.


With a close-knit and engaged community, suburban residents are more likely to participate in discussions regarding smart technologies, which will help them be better informed and aware of the impact of the innovation. Active civic participation allows suburbs to implement the best solutions that will provide the most benefits to its residents.


Involvement in smart initiatives from residents also brings about a better implementation process. For example, security and privacy are important topics for both citizens and government since interconnected technology cannot function without using residential data. Failing to communicate and navigate these concerns could effectively halt any smart city/suburb project.


Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto ran into problems as a direct result of residents raising concerns over data privacy. Suburban communities that are involved in their neighbourhoods would be better at coordinating and advocating with their local government to create better implementation plans.


Room for development


Many believed that “the death of Suburbia” was upon us a few years ago, but it’s clear that smart suburb technologies are flourishing. For residents, there’s an overt upside to engaging with neighbours, local associations and governments to advocate for the latest innovation that can improve their quality of life.


For neighbourhoods, it will be critical to conduct proofs-of-concept against the latest innovation to select and implement the best connected solutions. As cities grow more crowded and less affordable, the smartest suburbs will be those that use innovation as the cornerstone to thrive and grow.


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