What It Means To Be A City That Is Smart, Not Just A Smart City

Last week, I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on smart cities and civic innovation at the Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley conference. I also had a lot of time to listen. I spoke at length with vendors, city leaders and academics. While it’s no secret that the term “smart city” means many different things to many different people, there was a surprisingly large spectrum of themes and topics that—I think—reflect the ambiguity and varying definitions of the term well. Conversations and presentations included a range of topics from AI to civic engagement and user-centered design, among many others.

In the days following this event, I’ve been pondering the question of what it means to pursue smart city strategies and solutions in a smart way. Let’s face it: not all smart city initiatives are reflective of smart policies or smart decisions, and there are many reasons why. There may not be a solid technical or policy foundation in place to build upon. Leaders may be motivated to pursue smart city initiatives for the wrong reasons (for example, to create a story and the illusion of impact, rather than actual impact). Or, it may simply be bad timing. The list goes on. So, what, then, does it mean to pursue and implement a smart city initiative smartly?

First and foremost, a smart, smart city is one that pursues meaningful goals. Becoming a leading smart city is not a meaningful goal in and of itself. The end goal should always be about positive impact. Equity, inclusivity, accountability, accessibility, empowerment—these are meaningful goals. And, of course, improved service delivery and efficiency are important goals, too. All too often, however, the former appear to be missing from the vision and conversation, and we risk leaving too many behind. Technology and innovation—and, yes, smart city initiatives—can do much to close achievement gaps, bring people out of poverty and provide access to resources to those who need it most. G3iCT and World Enabled are also thinking about this, and I encourage anyone involved in smart city initiatives to take a look at their newly created Smart Cities for All Toolkit.

A smart, smart city is also one that has a solid technical foundation in place to ensure sustainable success in applications of innovative technology over time. Updating and replacing legacy systems is critical. Data governance, standards and open data are also important foundational concepts given the increasing volume of data that becomes available as technology and smart solutions become more abundant in city halls. The number of conversations and questions about how to make better use of data in cities is indicative of the degree to which progress still needs to be made here. These are formidable challenges, to be sure. But they’re challenges that can be overcome if they are taken head-on, with full support of city leaders.

And while technology is a critical piece of the formula for success here, human resources are just as important, if not more so. A culture that can manage and accept change, or even embrace it, will go a long way in ensuring success and sustainability over time. This will also be critical during times of challenge. At a basic level, data-driven decision-making should be the norm in every nook and cranny of city hall — manage for results, make decisions and policy grounded in evidence. Ensure that staff has the basic technology they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability and a willingness to adapt. Invest heavily in technology, but invest at least equally in people.

When the foundation is in place to be successful, more advanced applications of technology have tremendous promise for improving life in cities. I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about different ways cities might leverage the Azure cloud to solve urban challenges. Frankly, not a lot of cities are applying cloud computation rigorously and methodically throughout their organizations for problem solving and community impact. And that’s understandable, because the technology is relatively new, and it is especially new to local governments. But, they will get there, and they will get there soon—smart city and IoT initiatives will require it. To ensure long term success, though, think about what it means to be a city that is smart; not just a smart city.