What Makes Smart City Projects Successful?


In last week’s post we touched on a couple of ideas that help to explain why Smart City projects are so difficult; this week we’ll start to draw lessons from Huawei’s experience with Smart City projects around the world (170+ cities in 50+ countries) to see if we can identify some factors that are common, maybe even critical, to successful Smart City projects.

The initial list numbers five, of which at least a couple are obvious, but as we will see next week, there are some surprises.

• Leadership

• Citizen-centricity

• Team

• Investment, impacts and outcomes — non-financial measures

• Partners

Before we run through that list, to build on what we discussed last week, the first of the two points that we will examine today is about clarity of purpose. Last week I suggested that one of the biggest challenges facing Smart City projects is that there’s no clear motivation or problem that is driving the projects. The counterpoint to that is that successful Smart Cities have a clearly, publicly stated purpose — they know what they want to be.

Sometimes that intention is a social objective, such as Utrecht’s intent to be a model for healthy cities, or sometimes the intention is more pragmatic, like the cities of Darmstadt and Gelsenkirchen, which invested in building robust data lakes and information management capabilities. Sometimes the objective can even be a commercial goal as we see in Duisburg, where robust cloud infrastructure not only provides a framework for smart city services but also generates revenue by going into competition with the big cloud vendors in the private sector.

That clarity of purpose is powerful for two reasons: it focuses attention and resources and guards against distraction, and it becomes the rallying point for decision-making.

The second point for this week is explicit in the title of this post, and it has to do with the word “project.”

You could argue that there are two philosophical viewpoints that a city government can take regarding a Smart City; one is that it is something you DO, the other is that it is something you ARE. The difference is not just semantic or mere word-play.

In cities that see “Smart” as something you do, they also tend to see ‘smartness’ as something external, a flavour that they can add — or not — to a project. Such cities often engage in Smart City projects with a great deal of initial enthusiasm, but when things don’t work out (and let’s be honest, how many projects are ever problem-free?), they tend to lose interest. In these cities you will often find a lot of Proofs-of-Concept, or Prototypes, or Demonstrators, or Pilot projects. Another indicator of this approach is that you will find the Smart City team, or the function, buried inside the IT organization. In our experience, this is not an example of leading practice.

Instead, what we see in cities that are successfully becoming smarter is that they have embraced ‘smartness’ as a behaviour, as a philosophy, and it is embedded in how they do what they do. The Smart City team is not a group of people thinking about innovative technologies, it is an ethos that everyone brings to the table when thinking about innovative strategies for achieving city goals and objectives. Only then can truly innovative ideas be formed, shifting the discussion from simply doing things better to actually doing better things.

As my colleague Edwin Diender wrote last month,

“Projects do not fit. Programs and initiatives do. Budgets and costs don’t match. Benefits and value do. Funding and financing and best value procurement need to replace public tenders and RFP processes. We don’t talk anymore about selecting technology based on features and functionality comparisons — we talk about Proof of Value, not concept. It’s a journey.”

Next week we’ll get back to that list of five factors that I teased you with. Stay healthy.