As the “smart city” movement takes off, new initiatives are popping up all over the country as communities prepare for new wireless networks and innovations like driverless cars and ultra-efficient buildings and factories. Headline-grabbing ideas, however, are a warm act up for the even bigger revolution — bringing advanced applications and services into the home to “smarten up” bedrock quality-of-life services like health care, assisted living and education.
Healthcare and education are, of course, the bread and butter of local government. In 2016, about a third of all state and local spending went to K-12 and higher education and another 22% went to public welfare programs including health care and other services for the needy. These increasingly steep costs have become one of the biggest challenges faced by municipal leaders in virtually every town, city and county nationwide.
New home-based technologies provide an opportunity to do better, for less, on these vital challenges. Real-time medical monitoring, classroom-quality distance learning and job training, and artificial-intelligence driven home assistants enable forward-looking local government to deliver key services to community residents in their homes.
Even just a few years ago, this could not be stated so confidently. Fortune 500 companies might have had the massive bandwidth needed for things like real time multi-person teleconferences or virtual reality immersion, but most homes and residences did not. In fact, in 2016 only 4% of American homes had access to gigabit-speed networks from their local cable provider. Today, one-gigabit-per-second capable broadband networks now reach 80% of the homes in the country and broadband providers have announced their vision for delivering 10-gigabit service in coming years.
This massive expansion of residential connectivity hasn’t drawn the headlines an engineering accomplishment of this scale probably deserves. Nonetheless, policymakers and municipal leaders would be wise to recognize the sea-change it represents. Policymakers can leverage the power of this existing here-and-now platform today, rather than wait for the better-hyped developments including wireless 5G.
Thanks to innovative research pilots across the country, we know that delivery of key services directly to residents in their homes is both effective and efficient. A University of Alabama pilot program is replacing office visits for dialysis patients with comprehensive telehealth exams. A Mississippi pilot program to provide remote monitoring for diabetes patients saved nearly $350,000 in just the first six months. An online Cleveland health clinic hosted 25,000 virtual doctors’ visits in 2017, up 160% compared to the year before.
The benefits of these efforts go far beyond cost savings. In the kind of high-bandwidth environment the new gigabit platforms make possible, continuous monitoring and two-way communication will eventually make “aging in place” a much more realistic possibility for millions. A Stanford program, for example, is developing an AI-driven suite of monitoring and tracking applications to gauge health, nutrition, activity levels and indications of distress to allow elderly Americans to extend the time they can safely stay at home and delay or avoid the often jarring move to an institutional setting.
Remote education and job training are also ripe to be disrupted by the gigabit-enabled shift to home-based services. For example, economic development authorities looking to develop a local workforce trained for next-generation manufacturing jobs could one day save time and money through modern VR-powered home training applications. And virtual “field trips” can send students places for which no parent would ever sign a permission trip — say, inside the crater of a volcano or to a spacewalk outside the International Space Station – and ensure these opportunities are equally available to classroom and homeschooled students.
Some cities, including Los Angeles, have started to explore opportunities provided by the digital home via a customized utilization of voice assistants, including Amazon's Alexa and Google Home. Miami-Dade County is supporting a research project that uses Virtual Reality to help counteract the 'loneliness and social isolation' that often affects the elderly, especially those who live alone. Local government leaders should continue to pursue such opportunities and push them forward. In addition to initiating more pilot programs, communities should fund at scale the ones that already show promise and work to expand partnerships between government, academia and industry.
Preparing for future-looking Smart City initiatives is top of mind for civic leaders, but a powerful platform to transform the lives of residents is already in place. The new gig broadband platform available to over 80% of American homes opens huge new vistas and possibilities — limited only by our ability to imagine new solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges. Communities that develop and implement effective approaches to deliver health and education services to residents at home will be leaders nationally and globally.
Bill Maguire is founder of Connected Communities LLC. His email is email@example.com.