smart city (By Mascha Tace/


The race to become ‘digital by default’ will have winners and losers

Many American cities, counties and states are falling behind … in a race they don’t even know they are running.

As the chairman of the Smart Cities Council, I get an inside look at the plans and progress of the world’s cities. I can verify that high-performing governments are reinventing the way they provide services. They are going digital -- delivering city functions via web, smartphone and kiosks. By doing so, they are saving money while simultaneously increasing citizen satisfaction. The City of Dubai, for instance, estimates that its Smart Dubai phone app -- which delivers services from more than five dozen agencies -- will save more than $1 billion over a decade, while vastly improving citizen convenience and safety.

Equally important, digital cities are boosting their economic development by attracting tech-savvy businesses and talent.

It’s surprisingly easy to get started

Much of the smart city conversation centers around input, such as sensor networks that pull in data about the city’s conditions. But output is equally important. Today, citizens and businesses expect -- and increasingly demand -- the same kind of digital convenience they routinely get from Amazon, Facebook, Google, banks, etc.

Cities don’t need an expensive sensor network to get started. All cities are sitting on troves of data from their legacy applications. They simply need to commit to “digital by default,” a pledge to eventually deliver all services through digital channels. Pioneered in the United Kingdom, this concept has since been adopted by dozens of national, state, provincial, county and city governments.

"Digital services are much more convenient because they can be accessed whenever you want them," explained UK Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude when Digital by Default was launched in 2012. “They are also much more efficient, saving taxpayers' money and the user's time.” According to one British study, it costs as much as 50 times less to deliver services digitally versus face-to-face and 20 times less than by phone.

Expert advice and best practices

This trend is so important that the Smart Cities Council has just added a new chapter on digital city services to the Smart Cities Readiness Guide, a free handbook for urban transformation. The Readiness Guide documents 16 different flavors of digital services and five best practices gleaned from cities around the world.

One of those best practices will be quite familiar to technologists but remains poorly understood by many government officials: Customer-centric design. Here are the 11 characteristics of customer-centric solutions as recommended by the Readiness Guide:

Single account. Users sign on once for access to any and all city services.

One-time data entry. Data is shared across departments so citizens don’t have to re-enter information.

Multi-channel. Citizens can access services through any and every channel.

Self-service. Citizens have an option for self-service when possible.

Fully digital. Transactions are completed digitally. Documents are electronically signed, and notifications are sent to users who report a pothole via a smartphone that repairs are complete, for example.

Personalized. Applications “recognize” users, know their preferences and their key data.

Proactive. Alerts are sent for warnings (floods, fires, traffic congestion), opportunities (join our town hall next Thursday) or completion notices (the traffic light at Main and First Streets has been replaced).

Instrumented. Applications capture information about how, when and where they are used so officials can continuously monitor and improve performance.

Standards-based. Applications are built on open standards.

Trustworthy. Solutions strictly adhere to citywide privacy and security policies rules.

Social media integration. Users can easily post to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. without leaving a city’s app.

Best attitudes

It's not a new idea that governments should be customer-centric. In practice, however, it can be difficult. City governments generally do not think of issuing permits, giving tickets or enforcing regulations as customer service, so staffers must often first go through an attitude adjustment.

Part of that adjustment is to understand that “smart cities” is more than a trend -- it’s a race. Cities that get off the mark early will prosper at the expense of those that miss this opportunity.

We’ve seen this story before. At the end of the last century, some cities -- San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Austin, London, Singapore and others -- got onto the tech bandwagon. They became home to great tech companies that attracted tech talent that brought in more companies became a magnet for more talent -- and around and around in an upward spiral. Those cities that missed the tech boom lost out. Many of them continue to struggle.

We often talk about the digital divide that prevents the disadvantaged from climbing out of poverty. In the years to come, that digital divide will apply to cities as well.

About the Author

Jesse Berst is founder and chairman of the Smart Cities Council.


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