In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers concluded that the United States needs $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2020. That is more than six times as much as the annual Department of Defense budget.
“Generally, in cities, we have been doing the same infrastructure since ‘I Love Lucy’ was on television. We have been repaving asphalt the same way; we have the same sort of dumb street lights,” said David Graham, deputy chief operating officer of San Diego at Smart Cities Week in Washington D.C.
But there is reason for optimism. There is widespread political and public support for infrastructure support. Both Clinton and Trump have recommended that billions of dollars be invested in infrastructure in the near term.
Even allocating a relatively small fraction of that budget to smart city initiatives could transform city management. “We could take 5 percent of the budget and lay fiber in the road, add sensors to streetlights, or create a connected mesh network for a microgrid,” Graham says. “The fact is, infrastructure is not a nice-to-have, it is a need-to-have.”
McKinsey agrees. Supporting the quick growth of cities across the United States will require new approaches to city and resource management. It will require new types of collaboration between city officials and vendors, McKinsey says.
There are already examples where this type of partnership is paying dividends. The city of San Diego collaborated with GE to install smart lighting infrastructure. “For our street lighting project, we see a reduction in energy use that’s worth a quarter of a million dollars just on our energy bill alone.” Smart street lights can also be equipped with an array of sensors, enabling cities to track everything from air quality to car wrecks.
Many other cities across the U.S. are making the transition to LED lights as well, thanks to falling costs of the technology. Cities can recoup their investment in the new lights in about five years. Roughly 10% of U.S. cities have converted to LED lights. Complicating matters somewhat is the American Medical Association’s warning in June that high-intensity LED lights can cause health problems.