Smart Cities For Dummies
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Beginning the journey to create a smart city is a bold and courageous first step. The risks and costs are high, and positive outcomes aren’t guaranteed. Most cities that haven’t yet committed to a strategy may be able to detect an element of inevitability that the day will soon come. Evolving needs and community expectations will demand it. The promise of new technology in solving urban issues and delivering better results is simply too compelling — and in some cases too urgent — to ignore.

smart city problems ©Shutterstock/structuresxx

But you do need to recognize pragmatic hesitancy. Those risks and costs are concerning. Reputations are at stake. The work is difficult and complex. However, the day will eventually come when a vision and a plan for a smart city (or whatever other term is used) are demanded and when work will need to begin. Cities won’t be able to sit this one out. Action will be required.

When the decision is made to move forward with a smart city strategy, it’s time to evaluate the risks and come up with steps to lessen the danger. That means an ongoing risk management strategy must be part of the work as well. Consider establishing a risk register — a tool for documenting risks and the actions taken to address each risk. Fortunately, many case studies are available for review from cities of all sizes all over the world. Learn from them.

Here, you discover ten smart city pitfalls to avoid. If you avoid these pitfalls, you will certainly reduce risk throughout your smart city program. But this is only one short list: Do your homework and identify issues that may be specific to particular initiatives — for example, around energy, transportation, health, or drone usage.

It’s smart to be smart about smart city risks.

Making your smart city project a tech program and putting IT in charge

With the focus of smart city work revolving around the use of technology, it seems intuitive to consider it a technology program. Following that logic, it would seem to make sense for many cities to assign the work to their information technology (IT) team. Both assumptions seem reasonable but may be mistakes.

Certainly, smart city technology is a core requirement; however, this program is about people. Keep in mind that technology adoption is an enabler, not the outcome. You must always return to fundamentals. Smart cities are about improving the quality of life for communities. Use this core belief to drive the work, and remind stakeholders frequently.

The risk of making a smart city strategy a technology program and assigning it to the IT team is high, for the reasons described in this list:

  • Placing the focus on technology can alienate many stakeholders. They may feel that they cannot contribute because they have insufficient knowledge or prerequisite skills. The fact is, smart city programs have greater success when all parts of an agency and the community have high levels of engagement.
  • Your IT leader and team, despite their brilliance, may not be qualified to take ownership of this multidisciplinary program. It’s a leap to assume that knowledge of technology equates to competence in running projects that span across city domains. Sure, your IT leader may be a superstar who has the capability and knowledge to lead a smart city strategy. In that case, embrace this approach. In most cases though, it’s unlikely.
  • Placing the emphasis on technology may result in a program that receives less priority and attention than it deserves. The smart city program has the potential to be seen as simply another set of technology projects. The reality is that smart city work needs leadership at the highest level of the organization and that the focus at all times must remain on benefits to people.

Despite any caveats you might be given, your IT leader and team must be essential and valued program partners. There’s little doubt that their contributions will be critical to the success of the smart city program.

Garnering insufficient support and engagement from stakeholders for your smart city

On any given day, a government agency is managing numerous projects. Big cities may even have hundreds of projects running, which is what consumes a good deal of city staff capacity. For this reason, the processes for identifying projects, getting them budgeted, and then executing them is fairly routine.

More often than not, a project is managed and delivered by a single department. Sometimes, more than one department is involved, but an all-departments program remains quite rare. You should consider the smart city program an all-department effort. As a result of continuing routine practices, departments may be inclined to move forward with smart city projects with insufficient engagement.

Sure, they’ll embrace their normal network of involved participants, but they may not extend across other city departments and deep into the community. It’s not deliberate — it’s just that everyone defaults to their own routine.

After a smart city program is approved — the emphasis must be on stakeholder engagement. Spend some time determining who should be considered a stakeholder. Be liberal in your inclusion of people you may not typically consider.

The work to create a smarter and more sustainable city is a long-term effort. Engaging stakeholders and advocating for success early is a valuable approach. After stakeholders are identified, you must work with them to include them in discussions related to defining the vision, agreeing on goals and objectives, identifying projects and vendors, and more.

Engagement at this level builds trust among participants. It may create a heavier administrative burden, and it can slow the process, but the dividend makes it worthwhile. Certainly, a lack of support and engagement always guarantees bigger and more frustrating challenges.

To be inclusive, use a variety of platforms that include everything from traditional in-person meetings to online collaboration tools.

Limiting efforts to your smart city boundaries

Suppose that the mayor proposes that your city work on becoming a smart city. It sounds like you need to build a vision and a strategy for your community. That’s reasonable. But wait — might there be an opportunity to engage participants outside the city limits? All too often, the natural inclination is to focus solely on a single city. It makes sense on many levels. However, is it possible to be completely successful if the broader world isn’t considered?

The term broader world may refer to adjoining cities or to the local region. It may also mean engaging with federal organizations. Cities don’t exist in a vacuum. They are entirely dependent on their interdependence with other communities and external organizations. Here are some examples:

  • Public transportation: A public transportation system that serves a region can’t be considered only in the context of a single city or a few cities. If your smart city work impacts public transport, you need to engage with regional transport providers.
  • Public safety: Your city might invest heavily in new technology to combat crime, but if you limit that work to your city’s borders and fail to engage surrounding communities, you might be restricting the effectiveness of your efforts.
  • Environment: One of the most obvious suggestions for engaging participants beyond your own city is any effort related to the environment and climate change. Most people acknowledge that humans won’t solve air, water, and climate issues, for example, by doing work in a silo. These areas don’t respect borders. The best outcomes will be achieved when collaboration exists at the regional and national levels, where appropriate.
Finally, smart city leaders can explore regional efforts if it means sharing cost. It’s highly possible that the work you’re doing would be of interest to cities nearby. Go ahead and have that conversation with them.

A smart city effort executed by several cities will reduce costs and may even be more successful due to regional collaboration. Even if it’s more difficult, the effort may well be worth it. You won’t know unless you explore it.

Paying insufficient attention to inclusiveness issues

Most everyone enjoys using new technologies. But there’s always a risk that deploying a new smart city technology and process may have a positive impact on one part of the community while overlooking, or even limiting, others. That is unacceptable. Cities belong to everyone. Cities must serve everyone. Private organizations may have the right to choose their customers, but cities do not and should not.

For example, even when a city digitizes a simple analog process, such as putting a form online, it must retain alternatives for those who lack the technological savvy or access to the necessary technology. It’s a unique city characteristic and responsibility.

Because smart city efforts can range in their impact on a community, careful consideration must be given to inclusiveness. Urban innovation has the real potential to create and increase social inequity. Specifically, in the design of a new service, teams must assess whether everyone who may be impacted by the change continues to be served with equal access, respect, and attention. Ensuring analog options for online services may be relatively straightforward, but many smart city projects involve both the digital and physical worlds.

For example, services that use audio and visual cues must be accessible by those who have limitations in those sensory areas. Inclusive smart cities require broad community engagement and collaboration — and a commitment to human-centered urban design.

To date, the lack of a focus on inclusiveness in smart city programs has been an area of notable criticism. It’s time to make inclusiveness a priority and a mandatory part of the work. Improving the quality of life in cities must not be an experience for only a subset of a community — it’s a goal that must benefit everyone.

Moving forward with a smart city without adequate governance

For many people, the term governance may not be familiar, but the purpose is typically well understood. Simply defined, governance involves the structures put in place by organizations and teams to achieve measurable results toward achieving their goals. These goals can include the strategy of an entire organization, a project, or a program. The structures of governance can include these tasks:
  • Identifying leadership and staffing positions
  • Defining reporting relationships to be put in place
  • Determining how decisions on funding are made
  • Choosing how issues are escalated
  • Selecting which processes are adopted
To launch a smart city program without agreement on a rigorous governance structure (also called a framework) is a recipe for possible failure. The skills in putting together a governance framework may not be present in many cities. This is why you’re encouraged to seek assistance from an external party. Good governance can produce good results. It’s worth the time and expense needed to produce an agreeable approach.

You’ll know whether your city has good governance in place if qualities such as clear accountability, process documentation and transparency, specific role definitions, reporting structures, goals, objectives, program and project alignment with strategy, and metrics are all defined and agreed on. Consider these and more as the pillars of governance success.

Working with no clear vision of the smart city program

Let’s be honest: Running a small handful of technology-related city projects does not a smart city make. That’s just a handful of technology projects. The work to create a smarter community will likely be a multiyear effort with clear, bold, and ambitious goals. A meaningful shift must take place in terms of how services are delivered and operations are conducted.

Quality of life should be measurably improved and experienced. This kind of game-changing work requires a vision — preferably, one articulated by way of a vision statement that includes a short description of what the organization wants to become. The vision, which is a signpost of where the enterprise is headed, guides all stakeholders in their decision-making and their actions.

A smart city vision should be aligned with the city’s broader strategy and approved by the community. In fact, determining a vision for your smart city work is an important way to engage constituents. Don’t stop at the vision, either: It’s the starting point that gets converted to goals, objectives, and then projects. Deep engagement with city staff and community members helps to ensure that the right priorities are identified and there’s agreement on the work to be done. Bring lots of data to these decision-making activities.

A great vision is a great start to your smart city work. Without this vision, you have no signpost. Later, you may find that this lack is a guarantee of facing program challenges further down the road. Make the creation of a smart city vision one of the first things your team does.

Downplaying the essential roles that security and privacy play in a smart city

A trade-off will continue to exist between the benefits that technology and data bring to the world and the attendant risks that come with them. As people acquire and deploy more digitally based solutions in their homes, businesses, and cities — and even on themselves — everyone clearly recognizes the many advantages that each new innovation brings.

Emerging technologies are rapidly changing the world in surprising ways. What isn’t clear is the extent of any risks that each one may present. Part of the challenge is that the nature of the risks continues to evolve. Cybersecurity is a particularly dynamic space: The bad guys are generally outpacing anyone’s ability to fully protect software and hardware security vulnerabilities. Leaps in cybersecurity are being made, but a long road lies ahead if we humans are ever to have the upper hand in completely protecting our systems.

One of the core by-products of city government services is the collection, management, and storage of data. It’s the one asset that every government has in abundance. Just consider all the services that need system and data support. The amount of data collected in forms alone is humungous for most agencies.

Now cities are deploying an array of different sensors that capture details such as video, air and water quality, traffic information, and much more. All these devices collect and produce data. Though protecting city data has always been important, the volume, velocity, and variety of it now has significantly elevated the risks to it.

As remarkable as it may sound, the responsibility and degree to which protections are put in place in many cities around the world is at each city’s discretion. That said, many efforts are taking place, ranging from new industry standards to new regulations and laws that are being applied.

For example, the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a law that’s being enforced across member nations to protect the personal data of EU citizens. In California, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is a similar law, albeit less restrictive, that attempts to protect the personal information of Californians.

Not making cybersecurity and privacy a priority in all city operations today is a mistake. The financial costs, loss of organizational credibility, damage to brand, severe disruption of services, potential downstream crimes, and pain to individuals it may cause make the stakes simply too high. Your smart city strategy will increase these cybersecurity and privacy risks. As one public sector cybersecurity professional once advised, “We shouldn’t be creating smart cities — we should be creating safe and secure smart cities.”

Sharing smart city successes and failures too narrowly

Government workers often take the brunt of stereotyping that characterizes them as lazy and unproductive. A few of those might exist, but isn’t that true in every industry? The truth is often quite different. Often, these people are some of the most passionate, selfless, and hard-working people you’ll ever meet. Some of the work can be thankless, but still, so many do the necessary, routine work of ensuring that their government services can function.

What also strikes many involved is the volume of important work that gets done that nobody notices and is never publicized. Few cities have marketing departments, in the private sector sense. Sure, they have communications teams who do vital work — such work may even include creating campaigns to attract businesses and tourists — but the everyday achievements of most cities are lightly reported on municipal websites and, at best, in local newspapers. In other words, cities can do a much better job of telling their stories.

Given the broad interest in smart cities, this work has received more attention than many of the programs that cities work on. The scale and transformational potential of the work is attractive for journalists and analysts, and so a decent amount of new content is being produced on this topic. So much of it, though, is being led by third parties, not by the city itself. Managing the narrative may be limited to infrequent press releases.

Cities need to tell their smart city stories. They need to do this as not only a marketing tool but also a way to keep their communities apprised and engaged. They also need to do it to help other cities. Of course, they’d love to share only the good stories and best practices, but enormous value lies in sharing the failures as well.

Of course, no city leader wants to expose the bad things that happen, so this strategy won’t be wholeheartedly embraced. However, the value in sharing those failures not only demonstrates transparency and honesty but can also be helpful in communicating the complexity and difficulty of the work for the benefit of other communities.

Embrace and share your smart city strategy strengths and weaknesses. More communities will reap the rewards of this approach and, as a result, many more may prosper. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Sticking stubbornly to the old ways of doing things

Most people love predictability. They enjoy their routines. It’s a lovely experience to visit a favorite restaurant after a long absence and find that the dish you love is still on the menu and tastes exactly how you remember it.

But predictability and routine in a work context — particularly, as humans traverse the fourth industrial revolution — may not be that desirable. This isn’t a reference to the comfort of a paycheck or the reliable trust of a colleague. Mostly, this refers to the need for organizations to change — often quickly — to respond to a world in transition.

The biggest risk to organizations today is the lack of relevancy. If you’re doing the same thing while everything around you (including your customers) is changing, you’re not demonstrating your relevancy and you’re likely on a trajectory toward failure. Continuous modifications of products and services, and even operations, is becoming a characteristic of the times. The ability to evolve and reinvent at a moment’s notice appears to be emerging as a competitive advantage.

In city government, change often happens slowly, and for plenty of good reasons, such as not having the budget to change or not wanting to upset a community by introducing a new process or having little appetite for even a modest amount of risk. Each of these is a legitimate concern and must be respected. But can the slow pace of city government innovation and a conservative mindset be sustained and acceptable when the world is rapidly changing?

With city complexity and community expectations increasing, and with a growing number of intractable issues emerging, business-as-usual for a city appears to be under pressure. Because a smart city strategy is often a response to these challenges, this means that the capacity to embrace change must also expand.

Sticking to the old ways of doing things while simultaneously pursuing a smart city program would appear to be incompatible. Leaders who are more flexible, ready to change, and prepared to take more risks may drive more success in their efforts than those who cling to the predictability of the ways things have always been done.

Thinking too short-term when developing your smart city goals

Depending on the political system of a city agency, projects may be tied to the term of leadership. In the United States, terms typically last four years, so many initiatives are targeted to kick off and be completed in that period. Though getting the right things done well is the purpose of leadership, it’s reasonable to also say that there may be additional motivations too.

For example, if the initiative is a success in a single term, an official may take credit for the change and also increase their chance of being reelected or appointed to another term. Sometimes the reason for the timing is that the budget exists and the need is now greatest. There are a whole lot of reasons why, and when, work is done in a city. Many are specific to the particular city.

It’s fair to say that many smart city projects can be completed in a reasonably short period (at least in a city context). For example, it’s possible to create and deploy apps that can be quite useful to a community well within a four-year time period. That said, the complexity and reach of an entire smart city program will likely stretch over much longer periods.

A smart city strategy typically has bold and ambitious goals. It requires a lot of individual projects, many of which are interdependent and require new, complex software, hardware, and process requirements.

You can easily fall into the short-term trap, where the team is looking just a few years into the future. Like everyone, they’re impatient to realize successful outcomes. A more pragmatic approach to the smart city work is to see it on the short-, medium-, and long-term horizons. As Steven Covey, educator and author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has famously said, “Begin with the end in mind.” A smart city strategy requires a long-term mindset, but with a focus on delivering value along the way. Too much short-term thinking may result in these errors:
  • Incorrectly setting expectations for the organization and community
  • Underspecifying the overall smart city architecture
  • Poorly communicating the long-term budgeting requirements
  • Sprinting at the start when everyone should be preparing for a marathon

A smart city strategy is a long-term effort. Plan for it.

Want to see some examples? Check out these smart cities.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

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Dr. Jonathan Reichental is a multiple-award-winning technology and business leader whose career has spanned both the private and public sectors. He's been a senior software engineering manager, a director of technology innovation, and has served as chief information officer at both O'Reilly Media and the city of Palo Alto, California. He also creates online education for LinkedIn Learning and others.

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