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What Makes a Smart City Successful?


We are in the midst of answering one of the most common questions I get asked — what makes a Smart City a success — and last week we talked about two factors: having clarity of purpose, and embracing 'smart' as a philosophy and behavior that permeates the whole organization.

This week I return to the five thematic areas that we have found in successful Smart Cities (notice how we’ve stopped talking about 'projects', in keeping with last week’s message).

Leadership: I like to start with this one because it is so blindingly obvious. *Every* project of any kind in any industry requires strong and visible leadership. We have known this for decades, if not centuries — it’s hardly a new concept. But in this context it’s a little different because we need leadership that can exist without a leader. Or to put it another way, leadership that can survive the loss of the leader. It’s simple: Smart City projects take years; politicians have decision timeframes (and sometimes careers) that can last only four or five years. Ensuring that leadership, direction, and accountability for the Smart City can survive the replacement of the CEO (Mayor) and the entire executive office (City Council) is the hallmark of a successful Smart City in Western Europe. That leadership comes from the civil servants, from the residents, and from the partner/supplier ecosystem.

Citizen-centricity: Ok, just as with the leadership topic above, hopefully this is another really obvious characteristic of Smart Cities — they model themselves and their services with consideration for the residents of the city. There are two twists to this, however: the first is that the Smart City can balance the often conflicting demands from the inhabitants, and can differentiate between what is demanded and what is needed and sustainable. The second twist is that the successful Smart City considers *all* of its inhabitants. That includes the businesses that operate within the city, the employees who operate on behalf of the government, and the tourists who move into, through, and then out of the city. Furthermore, citizen-centricity means addressing the needs of all residents across all social, cultural, and financial strata.

Dedicated team: The fact that successful Smart Cities use dedicated teams isn’t surprising — we basically said as much earlier in this post. But the dedicated team we are talking about is not an organizational branch hanging off of an org chart; it’s a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder group of which many members are not even city employees. These teams are the enablers and facilitators of requirements, ideas, and solutions. They aren’t limited to departments of Finance or HR or IT or Social Services or Environment or Education, but can cover all of those domains. And the teams serve multiple purposes, one of which is providing the sense and response capability that comes from residing in the community. Another is providing the basis for the leaderless leadership.

Investment, impact and outcome: This is surely going to be the topic of future posts so I won’t belabour the point here, but the highlights are that successful Smart Cities don’t worry about the cost of initiatives. They don’t look for a Return on Investment (RoI), and they use a different accounting model. That’s not to say that they don’t think about the money they spend — of course they do and they should! It’s taxpayer money, after all. But the point is rather that they see Smart City as simply part of the business that they already do, and that it is therefore a cost of doing business. And while conscious of what they spend, successful Smart Cities measure their success with a different measure. They don’t look at outputs but rather outcomes; they don’t use financial or (even worse) IT project features and functions, but use indicators from outcomes in the social, education, healthcare, and environmental domains. Counting the number of traffic cameras has no value; identifying cars on streets is meaningless; measuring CO2 and particulate matter is better, but measuring the respiratory health of children and seniors is best of all.

Digital partner: Finally we come to the factor that is most important to me personally, based on my experiences. Successful Smart Cities have great technical partners. To be more specific, successful Smart Cities don’t worry about technology, they let someone else worry about it for them. I mean this with the greatest respect and admiration for my former public sector colleagues and all of my public sector clients, but city governments should not be in the business of IT solution delivery. Cities have realized that they are not equipped to build roads, buildings, sewers, or railways (operations and maintenance is a different topic) — so why is IT any different? What we have seen in Europe is that the most successful Smart Cities have entrusted another entity — a competent and specialized entity — with the responsibility to develop a Smart City’s IT. But that’s not to say it’s an IT company. In fact, most of the time it’s not, because of the conflict between service delivery and profit. Instead what we see are digital partners emerging in the form of local internet service providers, multi-utility companies, Research and Development (R&D) and academia, and undoubtedly more models will emerge. It doesn’t matter whether the partner company is publicly- or privately-owned, what matters is only four things: they are technically competent, they have efficient and effective service delivery at their core, they are local, and they are socially/geographically/financially/philanthropically bound to the community.

I think that’s enough for this week and we’ll come back to some of these topics at a later date. Please feel free to leave a comment if there are other factors that you have found to be critical or common to successful cities.