Do Smart Cities Really Exist?

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There is no such thing as a Smart City on Planet Earth.

Ok – I said it. I’m a Chief Innovation Officer trying to build one, just like hundreds of my colleagues in government, industry, academia and the non-profit / think tank world. But as far advanced as Kansas City, Missouri is, we’re not there yet. We have an awesome Smart District adjacent to our Streetcar Line, and we have a plan to move from being a “Cool City” to a “Smart City” within the next four years. There is a lot of work to get done in that time.

There is a lot of talk about “Smart Cities” in the world today, and coming to an agreement on a clear definition for the term may be a good first step. Unfortunately, the dynamic ecosystems in which cities evolve prevent any standardization. Cities – by design – are hyperlocal. If a mayor is failing he or she doesn’t need to consult a poll; the mayor hears about their shortcomings in the produce aisle in the local grocery store.  Because of this hyperlocal nature, each “Smart City” addresses the needs of exactly one community. This is an easy accommodation for a city to make, but industry or academic leaders who seek common platforms or replicable models grow frustrated due to the lack of standardization that drives their business model.

The Kansas City model will create the smartest city in the world within four years – from Kansas City’s perspective. Elements of it can and should be replicated across other communities and metropolitan areas. These replicable elements can form a loose set of standards that differentiate a “Cool City” from a “Smart City” and may help all Smart City contributors agree on a rough framework that allows cities to be appropriately focused on one community’s problems while allowing industry and academia to develop products and methodologies that apply across multiple cityscapes.

  • Cool Cities have IoT infrastructure or software deployed that make citizens’ lives easier or improve city services in a limited scope or small area. Examples may include a WiFi network in a public space or an interactive kiosk that enhances a visitor’s experience in a historical area.
  • Smart Cities have IoT infrastructure and software deployed that make citizens’ lives easier and improve city services based on both the capability itself and the data generated by the IoT infrastructure.

The key difference between “cool” and “smart” is data. Smart Cities collect data, analyze data and use data to inform / accelerate decision making. The data collection plan cannot be based exclusively on the capabilities of sensors; it must be informed by a city’s goals. This is the critical collaboration point between cities and their industry / academia partners. A sensor will collect zeros and ones, but a city leader needs to define success algorithmically. When the data are collated in a platform that transforms the zeros and ones collected on a city street or in any one of hundreds of other open data sources into an assessment of the Economic, Education, Efficiency or Enforcement programs in a city administration, then the city moves from being “cool” to being “smart.” To do that effectively, about half a city’s population or jurisdiction needs be included in the sensor footprint (from there, leaders can effectively extrapolate models to the remainder of the city not under coverage).

Making the transition from “Cool” to “Smart” also requires a culture change within city government. Cities cannot control a data-driven environment; a local government is one of many players in the ecosystem. Mega communities including for-profit businesses, community organizations, schools and otherwise disconnected citizens all contribute to the Smart City environment. To meet the requirements of this diverse group, centralized planning must evolve into collaborative planning among many stakeholders. Objectives must be described with several terms so that each contributing entity can work toward their own success while contributing to the success of the larger endeavor. In this planning environment, success is better defined by a Venn Diagram than a tweet (the tweet can define the sweet spot in the middle of the diagram where all organizations share success).

Achieving this level of collaboration also requires an adjustment to many city procurement processes. Partners cannot be selected episodically for a single project; success in a Smart City initiative often requires long-term commitments and delayed payouts for the industry partners. Partner selection is a key component of success. Kansas City has three-four key partnerships that endured from Phase I to Phase II of the Smart City initiative and an additional ten or so partners who contribute as needed by the three-four leading partners. The partners succeed fiscally over the long term. The city surrenders some control of the partner roles in this environment to a leading partner, and this can challenge a city’s normal procurement process or culture. This culture change is part of the megacommunity ecosystem, and, over time, it will just be part of the environment. But today, adjustments to the procurement system or management system generate angst in most City Halls.

Cities will become smarter over time, and data analytics tools and IoT systems will evolve to become part of the ecosystem in most communities. Kansas City is well on the path and is learning a lot – often by adjusting our plan as we learn the initial design is less than optimal. Our city is committed to continuing to grow and continuing to share experiences with other cities who are learning many similar lessons. Through open dialogue, all of us can quickly change the dynamic and create multiple smart cities and enable all of them to claim to be the smartest on the planet (from their perspective).

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Bob Bennett

Chief Innovation Officer at City of Kansas City, MO
Agile senior manager, strategic planner and operations executive with extensive critical thinking, planning, public relations and leadership experience. An innovative leader with experience in solving “wicked problems” including synchronization of over 500 concurrent operations in Africa and development / implementation of an integrated whole-of-government strategy in Iraq.
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Bob Bennett

Agile senior manager, strategic planner and operations executive with extensive critical thinking, planning, public relations and leadership experience. An innovative leader with experience in solving “wicked problems” including synchronization of over 500 concurrent operations in Africa and development / implementation of an integrated whole-of-government strategy in Iraq.