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Why smart governance must come before smart cities

The minds of entrepreneurs, technologists and new-wave urbanists are consumed with the future of smart cities. However, too often, visions of smart cities are disassociated from the citizens themselves. While it is widely accepted that modernizing the digital, physical and social infrastructure of a community can result in widespread social benefits for residents, too often those that interact with the new technology or government function are left out of the decision-making process. As one of the authors is a former public servant, we can confidently say that, given the sophistication of emerging technologies, it would be unwise not to explore new mechanisms for providing public services. However, the process is equally as important as the result.

In short, the pursuit of a smart city should not conflict with smart governance. Before investing in the newest technology, local governments must first consider the tangible benefits to their residents. To do so, officials must distinguish between wants and needs. Governmental priorities, commonly referred to as needs, should not be altered. All citizens need quality education, mobility, access to health care, utilities and a sense of safety. These fundamental priorities are, in and of themselves, costly and complex. As a result, government leaders have a duty to undertake robust examination of whether or not a particular smart city solution is necessary to address a demonstrated need that works to solve governments’ core complexities.

Alternatively, wants, which may be a function of a limited number of highly motivated citizens, should optimally be satisfied by the private sector, as opposed to needs, which should be addressed by elected officials or their designees.

In addition to internal cost-benefit analyses, governments must explain the intended purpose of newly deployed technologies to the citizenry. Civic involvement is essential before any effort is undertaken that will, as technology often does, fundamentally alter citizens’ lives.

The best technology and communications systems are meaningless without the support and buy-in of residents and businesses. Without an all-encompassing focus on the community’s needs, solutions may be misguided. For example, investments in autonomous public transit will not obtain maximum return, in terms of service quality, without consumer trust. At present, according to polls conducted in 2018, more than 60% of Americans are wary of autonomous vehicles, yet consumer outreach is rarely discussed alongside technological advancement. There is no doubt autonomy will have massive benefits. However, from a governance perspective, before investing public monies in a nascent technology, the use must be explained and demonstrated through pilots and public awareness programs.

Moreover, smart technologies are frequently dependent upon data sharing and insight into consumer behavior. Residents may consider this intrusive and unnecessary unless government is able to identify and articulate ways in which the technology benefits citizen lives and how sensitive data will be protected. Without adequate public discourse, even predictive crime technologies, gunshot sensors and policy trackers can be seen as intrusions by Big Brother, rather than prudent public-safety investments.

It should also be noted that smart technology doesn’t always have to be life-changing or transformative in the traditional sense. Smart cities are led by smart leaders, and smart leaders understand that when it comes to local government, constituents are more attuned to the issues that impact their everyday lives than to the high-level policy shifts that politicians tout. For example, citizens want fewer potholes, more accessible green space and easy-to-understand government websites. So while rolling out a new data collection system may seem eye-popping, outfitting government vehicles with radar technology to map sidewalk damage or potholes may be a better use of time and money. However, government will not know how to use the various tools available without engaging in meaningful conversation with residents.

Adequate public discourse requires more than simply holding a town hall where citizens are invited to voice their opinions for an hour or so. Listening to citizens, while of primary importance, is not in and of itself sufficient. Elected and appointed officials have a vital role serving as a convener. Smart solutions demand intra-government, inter-government and public-private collaboration. Cooperation among all three tiers is required to bring about success.

Too often, private-sector innovators assume that technological benefits are self-explanatory. They are deep in the weeds of the technologies they develop on a daily basis, and thus they may neglect to explain, in layperson’s terms, why and how their product improves lives. Similarly, governments are sometimes prone to “knee-jerk” regulation when a new mode of transport, a novel health-care service or another proposed change to city operations doesn’t neatly fit into a 10- or 15-year strategic plan. By engaging in productive conversations with all stakeholders, governments will make smarter investment decisions and products will enter the market with less fear of regulatory or consumer backlash.

There is an important balancing act that governments must strike in allocating financial resources and municipal assets to improve city operations for the benefit of constituents. Inclusive, collaborative engagement with technologists, government agencies and stakeholders in the community who will be affected by proposed technologies will help keep people, governments and businesses moving in the same positive direction, ensuring that scarce financial resources are allocated appropriately.

A smart city is the result and an end, not an effort or goal.

About the Authors

Sam Olens is counsel in Dentons’ public policy practice.

Crawford Schneider is associate managing director in Dentons’ public policy practice.


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