The top smart cities in Europe include Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Barcelona.

Or, depending upon who you talk to, what model you use and when you have the conversation, the list can also include Luxembourg and perhaps Vienna.

However, if you rely on the results from Forbes magazine in 2016, that “smartest global city” list includes other popular European tourist destinations like London and Paris — along with our great American City of New York.

Yes, these studies and polls do matter for lots of reasons. As we know from the Olympic Games, every country (and athlete) strives to win gold medals. No doubt, smart city awards can bring infrastructure investment, jobs, startup companies, more people and much more.

But regardless of which city tops your 21st-century innovation list at any moment in time, there is a more fundamental set of questions that these smart city awards can teach us.

Core questions include: What makes a smart city? (That is, what are the components?) Why do smart cities matter? What criteria and metrics are used to judge progress? What benefits can be seen from early developments in this space? Also, where are these trends heading?

I think there is a lot we can learn by modeling best practices in the smart city arena. And no, these trends are not only for the largest cities or most popular urban areas in the world. There are smart city competitions for cities of all sizes, so we can all benefit from case studies and award-winning examples.

Why Europe?

According to Juniper Research, European cities dominate the list of top global smart cities. “European cities are forging ahead with efforts to become smart cities, with 60 percent of the world’s leading smart cities based in Europe. It was found that innovation to reduce congestion and energy consumption were key initiatives across many European cities.”

Research author Steffen Sorrell recently said: “When addressed effectively, the impacts of reduced congestion are substantial: higher economic productivity, potential for new revenue streams and services as well as a measurable benefit in reduced healthcare costs.”

And there are several other recent studies highlighting European success smart city stories.

Amsterdam: A Closer Look

As I dug deeper into research on this topic, I was intrigued by the story behind one of the top global smart cities — Amsterdam. Allow me to show you why.

To start, check out this YouTube video describing the components of their smart city.

The story is compelling in that it describes new ways to manage complexity, build together and make life more fun. The elements of their smart city described smart lights, dynamic traffic management, fastest Internet, energy management, natural watercooling, most reliable energy grid, building community, electric water transport, augmented reality, joint ownership (as a man gets in a car), learn everywhere and smart health care. The video ends with the message to “be smart and join in.”

In addition, I really like the study done by MIT Sloan Management Review, which examined Data Driven City Management — A Close Look at Amsterdam’s Smart City Initiative. This very transparent piece lays out the good, bad and ugly associated with data and apps and public-private partnerships. The story is truly worth reading.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning: "Many major cities recognize the opportunity to improve urban life with data analytics, and are exploring how to use information technologies to develop smarter services and a more sustainable footprint. Amsterdam, which has been working toward becoming a 'smart city' for almost 7 years, offers insights into the complexities facing city managers who see the opportunity with data, but must collaborate with a diverse group of stakeholders to achieve their goals. The city’s chief technology officer, Ger Baron, makes it clear that their efforts are still early days: 'I can give you the nice stories that we’re doing great stuff with data and information, but we’re very much at a starting point,' he says."

The Amsterdam study’s sponsor was EY, and here are some of their lessons learned regarding smart city best practices and lessons learned:

—  Smart City initiatives will benefit from the demonstrated strengths Amsterdam demonstrates, including:

—  Strong leadership — "Amsterdam’s political leaders continued to pursue the Smart City project in spite of changes occurring after an election. ..."

—  Emphasis on proof-of-concept projects - "Amsterdam has produced more than 80 pilot projects across the city. Some are as simple as sending text messages to welfare recipients to say their checks are on the way, a move that reduces call volume to the city’s help lines. ..."

—  Effective alliances — This included many public-private partnerships. "Amsterdam tapped into grocery store data about vegetable sales to evaluate a city campaign to encourage children to eat more healthfully. ..."

—  Tailoring products to customer needs — The consumers of that data will influence the best style of communication. For example, the “Climate Street” shop owners wanted to receive annual reports with simple recommendations on how to reduce energy use — not more frequent and complex analyses. ..."

—  Building a talent pool — "A university program dedicated to smart cities, this institute benefits Amsterdam while also making the city a hub for people interested in using data to make a positive difference in the world. ..."

Amsterdamsmartcity.com has an impressive set of posts, projects, pictures, maps and more.

I also like this piece on the behind-the-scene efforts undertaken by Amsterdam to become a smart city.

Where Are Some Smart City Models to Use?

You may be wondering: Is there is an accepted model to use to measure specific progress and initiatives regarding smart cities? The answer is yes, with this European smart cities model to help.

I really like that they have data going back almost a decade, and they are now on version 4.0 of this model. Also, you can go back to 2007 and version one of the model, which covers cities from 100,000 to 500,000 residents.

Another approach come from the annual IESE Cities in Motion index examines all aspects that make up sustainability and quality of life in 181 key world cities.  “Under the direction of IESE profs Pascual Berrone and Joan Enric Ricart, the index takes into account 77 indicators, covering 10 distinct dimensions of urban life: the economy, technology, human capital, social cohesion, international outreach, the environment, mobility and transportation, urban planning, public management and governance.”

The Future of Smart Cities

There is no doubt that this smart city topic is growing as the breadth and depth of experiences continue to evolve. Nevertheless, it does appear that the majority of European cities are ahead of most U.S. cities. Of course, there are exceptions to this trend, including the Columbus, Ohio, example and others that I highlighted earlier this year.

There are several upcoming conferences events on this topic, including this conference in London as well as this conference during smart cities week in Washington, D.C., in late September 2016.

It is also worth noting that the White House has recently championed progress in the smart cities efforts in the USA, and this blog titled “Building An All-Hands-On-Deck Smart Cities Effort” is worth reading.

I am confident that these smart city initiatives are not going away, regardless of upcoming election results. As mentioned in the Amsterdam case study, results in these infrastructure areas are not partisan, although specific project priorities may vary depending upon local politics.

As a final note, I will be co-leading a discussion on the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics and U.S. smart cities efforts at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) Annual Conference in Orlando in September. The Day 3 Learning Lounge Session is described as:

Always On, Always Connected (IoT and Emerging Technologies)
Eric Ellis, Chief Technology & Innovation Officer and iCenter Director, State of North Carolina
Dan Lohrmann, Chief Strategist and Chief Security Officer, Security Mentor

I hope to see many of you at that session to share your insights and smart city experiences. But regardless of your position or role in technology innovation or security, I urge you to become involved in making your city and government smarter.   

There is a lot at stake for the future of our cities and countries. We need to look at European cities for leadership examples and case studies in this important government technology area.