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Smart planning delivers powerful benefits for cities and citizens

Smart planning is rapidly emerging as an all-important tool for municipalities looking to streamline service delivery, satisfy the needs and expectations of increasingly tech-savvy constituents and deliver maximum value from a full range of physical and human infrastructure.

It is a big, challenging promise, but it could not be more timely. Smart planning reflects the potential baked into a set of planning concepts that are still taking final shape -- based on practitioners’ direct experience and increasingly sophisticated uses of technology and data.

An evolving concept

Smart planning is all about the evolution of the 21st century city. So it is no surprise that the concept itself is in evolution, with multiple definitions and scopes arising from front-line experience in different settings.

The term can include everything from big-picture land-use planning to the granular, but essential, details of smart, net-zero building design. Smart planning factors in promising practices that align government decision-making with what constituents value most: reliable municipal services, cost-effective program delivery and comfortable, affordable housing in safe neighborhoods. This type of planning treats sustainability as a key objective within the full meaning of the term dating back to the 1980s. Then as now, sustainability is about the environment, but also about the economy and social cohesion.

When it works, smart planning contributes to a city’s economic viability and resilience while improving quality of life for its citizens. It does this by using the best available data and technology to coordinate and optimize every area of responsibility a city touches -- from water quality to waste management, housing to transit, and education to municipal planning and permitting.

Smart planning makes local government more effective, with superior customer service that more closely matches up with the e-commerce experience citizens and businesses have come to expect. It makes decisions and investments more cost-effective, delivering greater value for every tax dollar collected and spent.

Getting from here to there

At least, that is the vision. In some communities, it is getting closer to becoming a reality every day. But the shift to smart planning will not happen overnight, and it won't succeed without sustained and properly focused effort.

Cities that are making the transition share these common characteristics:

Vision. A smart planning initiative only gets off the ground with a strong guiding vision from the top of the organization and from one or more program champions making the case for a new way of doing business. Elected officials and senior management should have a clear, easy-to-articulate picture of what they are trying to achieve, and citizens must always be able to see themselves in the picture.

Collaboration. No organization can turn on a dime. Municipal administrations already have their priorities, budgets, processes and day-to-day marching orders. They are busy enough without thinking about how to disrupt the flow. But that reality also points to one of the longer-term benefits of smart planning: the new technology and processes help break down silos and allow multiple players to bring their unique strengths to the table. This fosters cooperative strategies and attitudes that bring programs and departments together.

Initial investment. Smart planning delivers powerful efficiency, rewards and cost savings once the process gets rolling, but it needs some careful up-front investment to get started. This is a challenge for cities already scrambling to deliver high-quality community services under severe financial constraints.

Focus on users. The transition only works when smart planning keeps citizens, stakeholders and staff at the center of every decision, product and service. Smart planning exercises are driven by data, often in massive quantities, and it is tempting to see that data as an end. It is not! As with any other business planning exercise, the only data that should be gathered is that which will be used to benefit for the community.

Early successes. Like any other change process, smart planning takes time to begin delivering results. It is important to plan for quick wins that build stakeholder confidence in the process while producing cost savings that can help pay for the next stage of work.

Where it all begins

Smart cities share common ingredients that have contributed to early success with smart planning. Efforts should begin with a scan of municipal projects elsewhere to learn from others' experience to keep from reinventing the wheel. Municipal administration must have the expertise to drive the process. If it does not, it may be time to build up a network of trusted advisors to help with the early stages of the work. City departments and agencies must be prepared to share ideas, insights and data in ways that may be very new to them.

About the Author

Bob Benstead is VP of business development – public sector, Infor.


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