When local governments narrow the scope of what is considered smart to only include those projects backed by technology, they fail to recognize how limiting that view really is.
Ask any two individuals to define a smart city, and you’re likely to get two wildly different responses. For such a ubiquitous term, we seem to have a difficult time nailing down a clear definition, let alone the specifics that make up such an initiative.
Take these two definitions for example, both pulled from a November 2021 Smart Cities Dive article:
- Smart cities are those that have put in place “modern wireless communication and devices that can provide telemetry about all types of conditions and actions in the environment,” said Linda Gerull, the city’s [San Francisco] chief information officer and executive director of the city and county’s technology department.
- Los Angeles Deputy Mayor of Budget and Innovation Jeanne Holm said a smart city is a city "that provides services and uses data and technology in ways that improve equity, access, safety, and quality of life for residents, businesses and visitors."’
Despite a lack of clarity regarding the term, cities have spent billions of dollars in resources attempting to make their cities smart. In fact, according to Statista: “Technology spending on smart city initiatives worldwide is forecast to more than double between 2018 and 2023, increasing from 81 billion U.S. dollars in 2018 to 189.5 billion in 2023.”
The collective, full-throttle approach to digital transformation (and all its perceived glory) has created a sort of tunnel vision, wherein the focus has been placed squarely on the technology, leaving out the most critical aspect – the citizen.
By focusing smart city projects on citizens and local governments, residents stand to gain from efforts to create a better, smarter community with or without the aid of technology. Because after all, shouldn’t every initiative, project and city be smart?
What makes a city smart?
Despite leading a software company that’s served the public sector for over two decades, my personal definition of a smart city doesn’t rely on technology. To me, a smart city is a city that makes its citizens’ lives better in a responsible manner.
Is technology often a part of that effort? Yes. But is it the whole definition? Certainly not.
In my view, smart cities and smart projects can be classified as technology-driven, technology-void, and anywhere in between.
- Technology-driven example: A virtual city hall that enables communities to digitally interact with their government through one online “home.”
- Technology-void example: New York City’s High Line, which repurposed old train tracks to create a public park in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in America.
When local governments narrow the scope of what is considered smart to only include those projects backed by technology, they fail to recognize how limited of a view that really is. And in fact, in my work, I’ve encountered plenty of “smart” initiatives that weren’t so smart after all.
For instance, government officials using resources to visit and replicate other smart cities when some of their local communities still lacked reliable access to water. Or the now infamous Sidewalk Labs venture, a high-tech futuristic city proposed for Toronto’s waterfront.
What cities have learned is that just because another city has seen success with certain initiatives, does not make it a good fit for every community. Deciding between adapting from another’s success story or creating something entirely new requires a keen understanding of citizens’ needs and how they’re currently being met (or not).
So, how does a city become smart?
Without a doubt, technology has created an explosion of new capabilities – providing governments and local citizens with the ability to engage and connect in ways that weren’t possible even five years ago. And while these new digital capabilities have created a path for cities to become smarter and faster, to really be successful and see improvement from smart projects, cities must understand a few things.
A truly smart initiative requires a city to address:
- Why a change is needed.
- What that change is.
- How to go about making the change.
When the definition of smart is limited to specifically digitally enabled projects, it can be almost too easy to jump past the “why” and the “what” to get to the “how.” And we’ve seen these efforts fizzle out because, although the projects may be considered smart in a sense, they don’t truly address citizen needs in a responsible and effective manner. With that, the key tenets for growing into a smart city are:
- Insights and data-driven decisions.
- Process understanding and roadmaps.
- Community engagement.
- Measurable results.
- Finding ways to compensate losses, identifying resources and being committed to the “why” and “how” of the journey to becoming a smart city.
To effectively define the “why” and the “what” of a change, cities need to look inward -- at their processes, current programs and solutions as well as the technology -- asking questions about what is currently being done and why.
It’s critical to start with data. Data-driven decisions bring clarity on the current state of a city and light the path to the future solution everyone is seeking. By defining these parameters and then evaluating citizen needs, leaders can determine how best to use resources and create value for the community. And in many cases, this sort of self-reflection can help identify and benchmark a city’s efforts in comparison to other similar communities.
Often, after defining why a change is needed and what that change will be, finding the right technology can help to accelerate the “how.” Acting in a supporting role, instead of as the main focus, technology arms cities with the means to truly serve citizens.
Smart cities of the future
The public sector is seeing a rush of innovation as we strive to define and become our smartest selves. But like any period of great transformation, activity will ebb and flow, yielding to the most successful outcomes or solution sets.
In fact, we’ve already seen distinct progress and transition as smart city efforts begin to emphasize urban infrastructure efforts and the manner in which local governments can use their resources to make communities more livable. But as always, the focus of tomorrow’s efforts has yet to be discovered.
To truly be a smart city is to continually evolve, focusing efforts and resources on smart, responsible initiatives that make citizens' lives better and the community more engaged.
Rajiv Desai is the co-founder and CEO of 3Di where he oversees the company’s strategic vision, operational management, and positioning in the marketplace.