It seems that every week, we receive new requests and inquiries related to smart cities. It is not a big surprise really as this is one of our core topics of interest and something that we are passionate about developing more traction in Canada. By using technology in the form of sensors, microcomputers, microcontrollers, networks, cloud, security, analytics, and cognitive platforms, we can enable cities and bring them to life.
As a technology person you would likely assume that my sole answer would be IT / OT focused. But, technology is just a facilitator of smart cities. On its own, it cannot solve the problems of the world. But, it is an enabler. Without a robust strategy that is underpinned by problem-solving and deriving meaningful benefits, a smart city cannot work.
So, exactly what is the best way to create a smart city? How can it be approached? How can success be ensured? What elements are needed for the strategy? Can we mix both hard and soft outcomes?
These are all good questions. It is difficult within the COVID time frame to do meaningful smart city work since developments within a city move slowly – very slowly. The elected officials who initiate smart city projects are often struggling, just like the rest of us. This results in a loss of leadership. Every smart city project needs a champion. A champion is that one visionary person who sees what is possible. Time is the enemy of a smart city. So, having the visionary leadership come from within the bureaucracy instead of from a short-term elected official is a smart approach. The bureaucracy is much more stable compared to the elected officials in most cases, but not in all cases. The city’s General Manager, CEO, CTO, or CIO are all good candidates to lead a smart city project. A strong leader from the city’s C-suite is a useful person as they have some level of control over the various departments. Again, if the city’s Mayor or a Councillor leads, that is not a bad thing either, as long as they are around to see the projects to the end.
So, a strong, enabler person with a vivid dream is the first element that needs to be in place for any smart city project to move forward. Every smart city project must have a champion. If the vision for the smart city is strong and worthy, then its lifespan can exceed one person, but another person of leadership needs to pick up the challenge and move it forward. Smart cities must have smart leaders. These projects need to be more than a political whim.
Lopsided projects are ones that favour too much of one aspect – economic development versus social development.
A balance is needed between these two drivers of smart cities. It cannot succeed if it is just one sided, especially if it is only built upon social development drivers. It will surprise some that even purely economically driven projects still must have some social benefits to prioritize the funding and justify the investments. In every city that I have ever been involved with over the past few decades, there are always way more projects than funding can accommodate, so they need to be selected, short-listed, and targeted to proceed. It is the social benefits that often get them across the starting line. All smart city projects need to possess a sound business rationale to survive – no argument. Even if they are built aimed primarily at social development concerns, they still need to have a business mindset to continue with longer term stabilized funding and measure success or failure. Outcomes need to be measured so corrections can be applied over the lifespan of the project. No project is ever perfect from the outset, so they need to be treated in an agile manner to continually optimize them over the span of their existence. Balance and subtle blending is essential to success.
If I was to prescribe a successful approach to creating a smart city, they it would follow three key steps:
- Build a clear vision with citizen engagement
- Develop baselines, targets, outcomes, schedules, policies, and budgets
- Go skinny and iterative, projects that get stronger over time
Most bureaucrats cling too tightly and solely to policies and frameworks. These are important aspects to all smart city plans and strategies. But, on their own they are not enough to even get started. Too many smart city projects start and end with policies that never go anywhere. You need to do your processes, and engage all of the siloed departments, but you must have a crisp vision to rally around and a leader who can socialize the thinking. The project must solve real problems. These smart city projects must save money and reduce complexity. In the end, it is all about making lives better. Making cities more livable for the people. It is all about the citizens.
A smarter city is one that embraces digital transformation and leverages technology to solve its problems and provide better, cost-efficient services.
It is not enough to simply throw technology at a smart city project. You must have a defined focus built upon: vision, people, goals, process – and technology. Engaging the people is paramount, both the end users and the bureaucrats. You need to build a ‘smarter city’.