Smart Cities For Dummies
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You’ve decided that a smart city initiative is right for your community. You now have a bold and ambitious vision. It’s time to get started so that you can actually realize this vision. You must initiate a process of translation to move from your smart city vision to a set of actions. For this, you need a plan.

Do not let the enthusiasm for progress and results curtail the essential and sometimes tedious upfront work of strategic planning for you smart city.

building a smart city plan ©Shutterstock/GaudiLab

This popular adage is a favorite of mine: Failing to plan is planning to fail. You always increase the chances of success in an effort if you have a plan. (Having a Plan B is a good idea, too.) Most people have some sort of plan in place when they embark on a major work project. But is it a viable and flexible plan? Is it a plan that can actually absorb the pummeling a long-term effort will experience and still succeed in its goals? There’s a big difference between having a plan and having a great plan.

What you need in order to get started is a process to define the strategy of how your smart city vision will be realized. You need a systematic process of envisioning and executing the steps to a desired future. Urban planning and development are typically deliberate and detailed activities. A smart city initiative is fundamentally an urban plan and therefore requires much of the same rigor.

You’ll make complex decisions that include trade-offs and compromises, and you’ll do all this with many other stakeholders. The art and science of strategic planning is a repetitive, inclusive, often exhaustive exercise, which is a characteristic of much of the work in the public sector.

You really do produce better results when you include as many people (those who can add value) as possible in almost any process. People want to be involved, and they want to have a voice in decision-making. After all, decisions that are made that affect the nature of a city have the potential to impact a lot of people.

Everyone is better served when input is derived from the broadest set of participants.

A strategic plan is a living document. That is, it is never locked down. It must be open to revisiting and to making course corrections as circumstances dictate. The plan must also be an artifact that’s referenced often, and progress must be measured against it.

The worst strategic plan is the one that’s developed and agreed on and then never consulted. It’s the one that sits on the shelf, gathering dust. It’s pointless, and even soul-destroying.

A strategic plan must be shared widely. It becomes a communication tool that helps stakeholders know what’s happening and when events will take place. The plan must be posted for easy access and made available in both electronic and physical forms.

Your smart city initiative should have a dedicated website, or at least a dedicated section of your city’s website. A large number of people — ranging from community members to city staff and from other cities to the vendor community and more — will be interested in what’s coming their way.

It’s worth spending the time to create a well-developed strategic plan. From better outcomes to clear directions for all who are involved and impacted, the benefits are numerous. But let’s be sober about this point: Creating a well-developed strategic plan is difficult, and the plan can be contentious. Be ready for the work ahead. Sure, it’s hard, but it’s well worth it. Perhaps this deserves a new adage: Preparing a well-developed plan is planning to succeed.

Developing a strategic plan for your smart city

Though business books might use different terminology, critiquing several of them reveals a consistent set of logical steps to move from an idea or need to a result. Whether it’s creating an art piece, developing a project, or planning a strategy, the following four steps typically spell out what needs to happen (Let’s call them the four D’s):
  1. Define.
  2. Design.
  3. Develop.
  4. Deploy.
Some form of measurement should be baked in, too, to hold everyone accountable.

Look below to see how this process can be applied to the development of a smart city. Keep in mind that the work of urban planning and development is never done, so by extension, it’s a little misleading to think in terms of completing a smart city. It’s a topic of considerable debate. (Another, similar debate involves determining which city in the world is “the smartest.” It’s not a fair question — each city is smart to the degree that it reflects the needs, culture, and aspirations of its citizens.)

smart city strategy The basic steps in creating and executing a smart city strategy.

Returning to the idea of the process of creating a smart city (assuming the assertion that, by definition, this process can never be completed), it should be clear by now that this may be an iterative process. Thought of another way, smart city efforts may have phases, and they may be redefined as time passes.

This topic gets a lot of attention because it directly relates to how you might think of scoping the smart city strategy exercise. Specifically, what are you including in the scope of the process to define, design, develop, and deploy?

The answer is that you and your teams must decide what to include.

Having a vision that may take a decade or more to accomplish is reasonable, but, realistically speaking, it’s likely a series of shorter actionable and consecutive strategic plans rather than a single big plan. Therefore, you should focus on the activities that are doable, relative to the larger vision, with the understanding that you’re dealing with a shorter time horizon.

Take another look at the image above. Strategic planning involves Steps 1–4. The first step is to create your smart city vision. The next step is to define your goals —the desired results of the vision broken into specific, measurable areas. Moving from vision to goals, which is an exercise that is fun and critical, requires what is called the envisioning process.

Envisioning a smart city

At its core, envisioning is an interactive process for engaging stakeholders in imagining a desired future and identifying the activities in support of realizing it. It can be thought of as a more rigorous brainstorming process. Envisioning takes many forms: It’s performed at the beginning of an initiative but can also be used at various other times during the course of an initiative if it’s deemed valuable.

Done well, envisioning can bring with it many of the following advantages. It

  • Gets everyone on the same page
  • Identifies creative ideas
  • Builds cohesiveness in a group
  • Enables all voices to be heard
  • Supports achieving consensus
  • Reduces the risk of pursuing ideas that may not be practical
To help guide you through the envisioning process that forms the basis of your strategic plan and goals, follow these steps :
  1. Define the scope of your smart city vision. Using the smart city vision that has been already determined, identify and debate (using the tools of your choice) the major city areas within the scope. Though it’s tempting to use only existing challenges to lead the process, turn those challenges into what you want the city to become. For example, instead of saying “Fix transportation congestion,” perhaps consider saying “Implement innovative and efficient transportation options that provide more options and shorter trips.” The details of how you go about achieving these in-scope items come next.
  2. Create a short list of goals.Step 1 will likely result in a large number of scope areas. Be sure to validate them carefully against the agreed-on smart city vision. A scope item not aligned with that vision might need to be tabled, or it might mean that the vision needs expanding.

    Next, group together common scoping areas and consider new language to cover the range of these areas in a single goal statement. For example, many ideas might be related to transportation, but they should roll up to a master goal. Later, you will create objectives for these goals that will define specifics. Here’s an example of a transportation goal: “Create a transportation environment that is friendly to the environment, is efficient, and reduces parking needs by 60 percent.”

    There’s no hard-and-fast rule on how many goals you should have, but you should be guided by what’s possible. If you have 50 goals for your small city, well, you’re probably kidding yourselves. Each goal generates many objectives, which in turn generate even more projects. Be realistic about what’s achievable at least from the perspectives of capacity and budgeting.

  3. Consider a time frame.By definition, executing on a vision takes a long time. You’re certainly looking at several years, but not so long that it becomes impractical. Agreeing on a general time frame around the defined goals in Step 2 creates an important boundary and helps to sharpen everyone’s focus. Though recognizing that a smart city strategy is never finished, you must articulate a time frame for this round of visionary goals.
  4. Identify your city's strengths.This step requires some careful and honest introspection. Articulate your city’s qualities that lend themselves to the work ahead. Recognizing these strengths helps you focus everyone’s efforts, understand potential risks, optimize for strengths, and assist in prioritizing objectives.
  5. Create a first draft of Steps 1–4.Combine Steps 1–4 into a cohesive narrative. This isn’t an essay. It should begin with the agreed-on vision. Additional support for the vision can be considered — notes on how the vision was derived, including some background and motivation, for example. This is followed by each of the goals, listed in sequence. Under each goal, provide additional supporting details and desired outcomes, and specify how they align with the vision. Include a statement on how city strengths support each goal, give approximate timelines, and provide a proposal on how the goal may be measured.

    Don’t make the strategic plan document a massive tome. If it is, you’ve done something wrong. Make it succinct enough that most stakeholders are comfortable reviewing it and can recall many of its highlights.

  6. Circulate the draft to your smart city stakeholders.The next few steps are what is called rinse-and-repeat. The draft strategic plan for the future of your smart city must be circulated among a broad and diverse community. Create a mechanism to make it easy to elicit feedback and track changes.
  7. Review, redraft, and recirculate.The first round of feedback will likely elicit a high volume of comments. In subsequent circulations, you should expect reduced volume.
  8. Finalize and socialize.With several iterations completed, it’s time to lock down the document. It’s clear at this point which topics have resonated with your stakeholders. Try to engage the right talent to create the final strategy document. Make this document easy to consume — one that everyone is proud to reference and share. Make the document version-controlled because you’ll create many versions. Be comfortable having the document undergo regular reviews and updates. If changes are requested, follow a similar rinse-and-repeat process.
You’ve reached the end of a major milestone in the strategic planning process. Now share it widely and often. With so many channels available for both analog and digital sharing, use them all. For the core online presence — possibly, a standalone website, or separate section of your city’s main website — consider a way for people to provide comments and information on how to reach members of the team.

Converting your smart city vision to action

Now that you’ve completed a high-level strategy document and it’s been endorsed by all the right stakeholders, you’re ready to move on to how the strategy will be put into action. The document so far includes your city’s vision for what it wants to become, and it lists the major goals that manifest the vision. Each goal is a specific area that articulates a desired future result within some defined period.

A goal typically doesn’t provide the level of detail necessary to follow a set of steps. What you need are supporting objectives for each goal. These objectives then tie directly to projects, which is how the work gets done. (The image below should help you visualize the relationship between a vision, goals, and objectives.)

What is an objective? It’s a specific action that supports a result in a defined time frame. It’s short-term with a clear definition and is a necessary building block in a strategic plan.

smart cities plan The relationship between vision, goals, and objectives.

Let’s use the example of transportation to explain how you take a goal and create objectives. In the example smart city, Goal 1 is to implement innovative and efficient transportation options.

The smart city steering committee or the operations team may designate a group of people who will work on determining the supporting objectives for this goal. In a smaller city, assigning a new group may be impractical, so perhaps the operations team is appropriate to do this work.

At minimum, people with the proper expertise should be part of the team. In this area, you definitely want experts in the transportation and planning areas, with input from public safety team members also potentially quite valuable.

The team who is assigned should be fully aware of the purpose of the goal, the way it supports the vision, the desired timeline, and the manner it is being proposed to be measured. This content lies in the approved strategy document as it stands. Conducting interviews with relevant stakeholders is a good approach as well — it might mean reaching out to people who haven’t yet been engaged in the process.

Stakeholders are both internal and external to the organization.

Once the team is comfortable with scope, it’s time to think about objectives. You can follow any number of models, including brainstorming and design thinking. For more on the latter, check out Design Thinking For Dummies, by Christian Müller-Roterberg.

The team must always be conscious of available capacity and funding and the timeline. Deviating from this guidance may result in objectives that, when reviewed, are quickly discarded and considered a poor use of everyone’s time.

To return to the transportation goal,” here's what the objectives associated with that goal might look like:

  • Goal: Implement innovative and efficient transportation options.
    • Supporting objective 1.1: Support migration to electric vehicles by providing electric charging stations at 60 percent of city-provided parking spaces by 2025.
    • Supporting objective 1.2: Upgrade all traffic signals to enable dynamic signaling based on real-time data by 2024.

Examples here are deliberately lightweight for the purposes of simplicity and clarity. Your actual goals and objectives may be more detailed. Let your teams determine what’s appropriate for your agency and for the purpose of increasing understanding. It’s a good idea to include clear details on any mentioned technologies and unfamiliar terms. You want all stakeholders to understand what is being proposed.

After all the goals have their associated objectives identified, you enter into a cycle of rinse-and-repeat, when the document is sent out for review and comment and then updated and reviewed again. This process repeats until general agreement is reached. The steering committee then needs to sign off on the approved objectives.

Finally, the completed strategic plan should be brought to your elected officials, or the equivalent, for sign-off.

Want to ensure your smart city is on the right path? Avoid these ten problems.

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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