Smart cities: Comprehensive solutions for a vibrant city

Boston

Introducing new technology systems is only step one and using them to maximum effect is another thing entirely. It is no surprise that smart city technologies did not bring about transformative change on a large scale in their first decade of implementation. Industry after industry has experienced a similar phenomenon. Once new technologies are introduced, legacy companies still have to develop the necessary capabilities and change existing organizational structures and procedures before they see real productivity gains.

Digital transformation takes time and work for any organization, and it can be particularly challenging for municipal bureaucracies, many of which have layers of regulation and a history of favoring rules over innovation. Incumbent stakeholders both inside and outside of government may fight to preserve the status quo. But digitization is often a powerful force for changing old structures and ways of doing things.

To become smarter, city governments need to add civic tech talent, at least in selective areas. Amsterdam is taking an active role in developing talent by launching the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions with a consortium of private-sector partners. The institute not only educates tech talent with an urban focus but also fosters the development and commercialization of new applications.

Even if municipal agencies rely on external providers to install and operate new systems, they have to be able to understand, direct, and monitor these programs in detail. This includes learning how to design requests for proposals for smart city applications and adapting procurement procedures for greater flexibility. Cities are often bound to source exactly what is defined in a public tender, but they often cannot know up front what kind of features are available in brand-new applications.

At least in the early stages, many cities have started their efforts by adding new roles such as chief digital officer or establishing cross-disciplinary smart city units. Boston, for example, established an analytics unit, while Chicago built a data science team. Singapore created an entire government office to pursue its Smart Nation initiative. Over time, however, the effort to become smart cannot stay segregated in one department. It needs to permeate every aspect of the day-to-day workings of government.

A smart municipal government manages a river of data that flows in from many sources. It uses that information to shape the activities of both government agencies and external actors, all of which need to communicate and collaborate. At the same time, smart cities free public employees and agencies from obsolete procedures and give them latitude to make bolder decisions. London has emerged as a leader in urban mobility in part because it has one strong central agency (Transport for London) with a comprehensive mandate and the authority to drive change in traffic management, transit networks, and bike sharing.

Bureaucracies have historically been inflexible, but in a digital world, city agencies need the ability to test, learn, adjust and recalibrate. Some smart cities such as Copenhagen approach that challenge by using pilot districts or living laboratories to develop and test out new applications. In Kigali, Vision City is a tech-enabled district where the city is rolling out free WiFi, solar-powered streetlights and mobile networks, and new housing units complete with automation systems. In the UK, Bristol is offering city experimentation as a service, opening up its digital infrastructure to both local and international technology developers.