Mayors and governing councils in urban areas, cities and communities around the industrialized world see smart cities as the “what’s next” in government and economic development. Futurists, technology companies, consulting firms and community organizations talk about how the cities of the future will capitalize on the technology being developed today, creating those efficient, diverse and connected communities where ideas thrive.

But how will we turn today’s conversations into plans to build out those ideas within existing urban, suburban and smaller communities environments?

Test the Concept

The “innovation neighborhood” has been cited by many as a likely route to a smart city. It’s an opportunity to start small, prove the concept and march forward. It also clears the way for a more manageable funding equation. By breaking down the massive changes in infrastructure required for a full-scale smart city down to a smaller-scale implementation, identifying that elusive funding source becomes more likely.

An innovation neighborhood must start with outreach. The conversation must include city planners, community leaders, infrastructure owners — electric, water and telecom, residents — and businesses, both existing and potential, with interest in the area or the technology to come.

Electric utilities are in a prime position to lead this conversation, based on their established and extensive knowledge of existing community infrastructure. But regardless of who leads, the first step is drawing those stakeholders together to define the neighborhood’s boundaries and begin the hard work of determining what businesses, activities and residents would populate the area.

Create the Vision

This stakeholder group must be able to visualize the broad and numerous factors that go into building the smart infrastructure in an innovation neighborhood. This vision can be built out on top of a backbone of three key components: net zero energy, high-capacity broadband and master-planned transportation:

  • Net zero energy creates a sustainable neighborhood. The energy used there is produced there, with a focus on affordability.
  • High-capacity broadband enables planners to reach out to entrepreneurs to find out the types of things they would do in such a neighborhood. How could they harness the connectivity to create something new and desirable — something that would generate revenue to support their presence and draw employees and residents to the neighborhood?
  • Master-planned transportation is the foundation for neighborhood activity — how people get there, move within it, live there. The neighborhood might incorporate ride services, mass transit connections, street layouts, parking capacity, vehicle charging capabilities.

Successful development of this backbone supports livability for a neighborhood through desirable live-work-play amenities.

Draw Them In

With a backbone in place, a community can grow into itself: attracting technology companies and establishing the services and amenities that will draw residents and visitors.

Companies start, arrive and grow in the neighborhood and are driven by the expectation to continue thinking big, even within the startup concept. Their thinkers, app developers and innovators generate the very excitement that feeds growth. The people that come are a diverse sampling: Young people seeking amenities, nightlife and a connected life … workers looking for career growth … empty nesters seeking to return to a close community with everything they need within a few blocks … and tourists looking to enjoy a cutting-edge environment.

What Comes Next

Infrastructure is built for a long life — 30, 40, 50 or more years. Technology moves much faster, reinventing itself in 18 to 24 months. Smart infrastructure decisions and planning will be critical in deciding what to replace, to improve, to piggyback on and to leave alone. Through continuous improvement, the smart city remains visible on the horizon.

A proven concept draws interest — and funding. Whether via new grants or revenues generated by successful business within a neighborhood, resources grow once the concept becomes reality. Competition may even develop among contenders to be the next innovation neighborhood.

Once a community proves the innovation neighborhood concept, how does it progress to the next step — and approach the ultimate goal of a smart city? Inside a successful innovation neighborhood, some things will have worked, some things will have failed. To move on to a second innovation neighborhood, those lessons will need to have been blended with new opportunities in technology and new ideas for livability. As neighborhoods build upon neighborhoods, the smart city will come into focus. 


Electric utilities, integral to the fabric of the communities they serve, are using their knowledge of local infrastructure to create the smart cities of the future. Download to read how next-generation utilities can take the next step.

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As a vice president for Burns & McDonnell, Mike’s top priority is helping electric and gas transmission and distribution clients take on complex projects. His team provides strong, smart and sustainable solutions in areas including critical infrastructure, the smart grid, smart cities and emerging technologies.