Digital, smarter, intelligent cities? The buzzwords are flying in local government today, from IBM commercials to the annual Digital Cities and Counties rankings.

Ask around — every city wants to be all these things, but what exactly do they mean? And how are they feasible in today’s world of budget cuts and doing more with less?

Here are five pillars I consider essential for being a digital city:

1. Digital Communications: How many hours do you spend per day checking e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or your text messages? Compare that to the time you spend picking up and reading your physical mail. A digital city communicates in citizens’ preferred mechanisms rather than spending money printing and mailing.

2. Digital Infrastructure: Fast Internet, great wireless coverage and a smart grid are vital in recruiting knowledgeable workers and businesses to your town. Traditional infrastructure (good roads, schools, water and trash coverage) isn’t enough anymore. The importance of digital infrastructure was evidenced in the race to win Google Fiber for Communities.

 

3. Digital Work Force: City and county employees must be trained and well versed in the digital needs of their citizens. Additionally the administration should provide the digital work force with the necessary tools — think more iPads, smartphones, software-as-a-service work solutions, access to social media and less Windows 95, locked-down access and clunky outdated systems. An organization is only as good as its people — that means digitally literate, passionate government employees.

4. Digital Services: Does anyone carry quarters anymore? I text payments to my parking meters. The same goes for countless city services that I don’t use the same ways I previously did. For example, I’d rather receive snow removal updates on my smartphone, e-mail or Facebook that I check 10 times per day rather than via the city website — that I rarely check. Would I rather phone in a pothole via 311 or photograph it with my smartphone and submit it?

5. Digital Interactions: Few officials or citizens like in-person town halls. The long drive and parking alone don’t meet the needs of a digital city. And there are only so many “meet and greets” a councilperson can do. It’s about interacting with citizens online from live streaming meetings, live chats with officials and idea generation. Through digital channels, you can get input on a zoning ruling, public transportation debate or share the annual budget.

These five pillars are just a start. Regardless of the adjective (digital, smarter, intelligent), all cities are looking toward the same thing — Gov2020. How do we meet the citizens’ rapidly changing demands of 2011 while simultaneously preparing for 2020 and the rapid advancements of the next decade? Let’s hope that in a few years, we’ll have many more digital, smarter and intelligent cities to model.

Steve Ressler is the founder and president of GovLoop, a social networking site for government officials to connect and exchange information.

Steve Ressler  |  Contributing Writer