Is my city “smart”, or just busy?

A blurry picture of people walking on the street

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to travel the world while preaching the “Smart†gospel to municipal leaders in the US and abroad. Many of the leaders who I met with were incredibly proud of the numerous investments, made by their city (or state or province or prefecture), relating to Smart. The ready availability of dozens of packaged Smart solutions, addressing countless municipal use cases, has made it easier than ever for governments to deploy Smart projects – from metered parking spaces that require no actions from the parker; to building environmental and security systems that continuously adapt based on how many workers are in the building at any given moment; to digital, smartphone-based, tools where citizens no longer have to visit an office to access city services. These solutions have allowed governments to reduce costs, increase “revenues”, and improve citizen engagement and satisfaction.

As these leaders recounted their various projects with pride, invariably I smiled and nodded and clapped.  Many times, however, I was also trying to figure out how to break the news that the act of implementing these innovations weren’t – necessarily – making their city any smarter than it already is. These investments have, clearly, improved the service (or interaction). They’ve also made things easier for the citizenry. They may have also made the service cheaper to deliver/perform. However at the end-of-the-day, most of these investments were not exploiting a significant value of smart-related technology – the ability to broadly impact outcomes beyond those of the implementing function (or department). 

While trying not to burst the collective bubbles of my gracious hosts, I often steered them to a definition of Smart that I often use… “A, truly, smart city is one that is leveraging technology to continuously gain new insights, in the hope of significantly improving broad city-wide outcomes”. This definition taps into an oft-overlooked aspect, and value, of the dozens of available smart solutions. Most are capturing truckloads of data (feeding the potential for gaining new “insights”) that was never before available. Think, for a moment, about a public hospital that has placed RFID locator chips on patients and caregivers to track their positions at any given time. While having that point-in-time view is important to the safe operations of the hospital, the historical record of movement can yield new insights into everything from whether critical equipment (like Crash Carts) is staged correctly, to how a Staph infection might have spread. Or think about the insights that might be gleaned from cross-referencing data from 911calls (reporting criminal incidents) with data from 311 calls (reporting incidents of nuisance). Since these individual, yet congruent,  smart solutions are often “owned” by disparate departments/agencies, a mechanism must exist to identify, and “elevate”, the use of the data beyond the sponsoring organization.

Towards that end, I’ve come up with a list of three defining characteristics that serve as a “litmus test” for whether a city is truly moving up the Smart City continuum. Most of the time, the simple act of sharing this list with my clients leads them to understand that silo’d smart investments, in and of themselves, may not be the defining element of a, truly, smart city.

1) Broad agreement exists, across city leaders, that a Smart City is one that gathers and leverages data to support more informed strategic decision-making and outcomes. This seems like an obvious statement but one that is, nonetheless, critical. Being smart is all about the data. And collecting, protecting, analyzing, and reporting of this data has broad implications that the sponsors of silo’d smart implementations don’t, generally, have to consider. Organizational structures and processes and policies may have to change to meet this, new, reality. Furthermore, this statement takes the onus off of the “device” (eg, the IOT) as the primary driver of a smart city and places it on the data and information that those devices capture and/or generate.

2) A city-wide Smart strategy exists that aligns to the greater vision, goals, and prioritized needs of the city.

In order for a city’s smart investments – both historical and future – to add value that transcends the benefits gained by the individual department/agency, a strategy should exist that ties the available data to the appropriate city-wide goal(s) and need(s). In addition to defining the links between these individual investments and the desired city-wide outcomes, this strategy has the added value of prioritizing future investments in smart. Those smart projects that support, in whole or part, a strategic city-wide need should have a higher investment priority. I recall a city whose first group of major smart investments had nothing to do with that city’s most pressing strategic concern, which was “making transportation through the city faster, easier, and safer”.

3) A “utility” has been set up that is responsible for collecting, protecting, storing, analyzing, and providing the data that will support the new insights and decision-making.

This is the operational aspect of the first characteristic. Some cities have established new organizations, and leadership roles, to operationalize this notion. Regardless of what the role is called, or where the organization sits, it should have a cross-agency, city-wide, purview. It also needs to be closely aligned with City Hall to ensure that it is supporting the city’s strategic initiatives and outcomes. Lastly, this “utility” needs to work closely with the agencies to identify and collect the appropriate strategic data. This is key. Not all data is required. Far from it. In some cases, the data viewed as most critical by the city isn’t viewed as being very important from a day-to-day operational standpoint. Another thing to acknowledge is that not all of the data will come from smart investments. Truly smart cities are collecting data from legacy systems as well as these new systems. In fact, I’ve seen cities embark on a smart journey by, first, leveraging the wealth of data that exists across their legacy systems.

It is not my intent to take anything away from the many cities, around the world, that have, collectively, invested billions of dollars in smart technology. These investments are welcomed, needed, and yield value. My objective, in this article, is to help many of these cities to tap into an additional element of those investments that they may not be taking advantage of. I, absolutely, love the convenience of being able to park in a municipal space, with the same convenience, and level of effort, that I have when driving through a virtual toll gate. But wouldn’t it be even greater if the parking data that my space yielded, and the toll data and the data from the smart street traffic sensors and the data from the smart fare system were combined to significantly improve my rush hour commute? The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.