How Smart Cities Are Boosting Economic Development Using GIS

3-D modeling and DIY mapping tools are giving cities new ways to market their economic viability to prospective businesses.

by John Spencer / June 24, 2015

Cities are looking for a competitive advantage with other municipalities to attract new business and grow their revenue base. They have to aggressively market and sell to targeted business prospects in order to survive and prosper. Such a strategy requires a well thought-out, innovative approach that showcases a city’s unique strengths. GIS technology lends itself perfectly to this need. It provides crucial information in a map-based format that’s easily understood, and that businesses will find invaluable in helping them make informed decisions.

In the last decade, municipalities have seen explosive use in internal-facing GIS mapping to manage and monitor their citywide services and infrastructure. Examples include the location and management of water and sewage systems, fleet management, and the information and location of capital projects. 

However, one of the most valuable external-facing uses of GIS is for economic development. This takes GIS into a different paradigm that can capitalize on its latest advances. We’re talking about exciting, innovative opportunities to use map-based data to provide businesses with the input they need to make a decision in favor of one city over another.

For example, 3-D imagery is now taking the GIS world by storm. This latest incarnation of GIS creates 3-D models that enable prospective clients, economic development officers (EDOs) and city planners alike to work together and evaluate the impact that a proposed new structure will have on a city. These 3-D models are also exceptionally useful in helping stakeholders understand proposed changes and soliciting community feedback. People can “fly” around a 3-D city and buildings to see the proposed scenario from every perspective.

Here’s an example of what a fictional development would look like for the city of Philadelphia:

Most forward-thinking communities recognize that in order to have a competitive advantage over other municipalities they need to be ahead of the growing GIS functionality curve. This means implementing some of the latest advances and thinking related to GIS systems. Three-D imagery is one way. Another use is to provide prospective businesses with a “do-it-yourself” GIS capability to generate their own map-based information and reports.

DIY Self-Service Analysis

Cities have recognized that potential clients are now doing most of their research and comparing communities before they reach out to a city’s staff, elected officials or economic development professionals.

Whenever possible, they’re using GIS maps and associated demographic data to create their own customized views and reports. Previously business owners would initiate a conversation with city representatives and GIS staff in order to obtain this data. Today, smart cities recognize that this innovative DIY aspect of GIS needs to be embraced and fostered by municipalities as part of their economic development strategy if they wish to remain competitive.  

For example, a city needs to provide prospective retail establishment owners with a DIY list of standardized, popular search criteria options where they can “self-select” the information they need to decide where best to locate their business, such as age, gender, income, housing, consumer spending, family type, education or employment.  

For clients who own a manufacturing business, cities need to offer searchable data on what’s available near a potential site, whether it's rail or highway transportation, zoning, workforce demographics, or the availability of land and buildings.

Once a prospective client has gathered the data, they can perform their own due diligence by reviewing and analyzing the information and comparing potential locations.  Below is an example of how a client can use a city’s DIY capabilities and self-select the information they want to view for the city of Fort Lauderdale. The resulting information is automatically displayed in a professional format that lends itself perfectly to any management or executive presentation where findings are typically reviewed in support of a business case and a recommendation made to locate in one city over another.

(This information was generated by going online to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance site and clicking on DEMOGRAPHICS under the Data Center tab.)

Bottom Line: Nothing Improves without Change

Municipal leaders need to recognize the power of GIS and know how to capitalize on this unique technology to maximize a city’s chances of success. Sure, EDOs are ideally positioned to take on this challenge and champion new initiatives. However, they need the full support of other senior managers and elected officials at city hall in order to make this a reality. GIS is not just about technology, but should also be embraced as an integral part of a comprehensive business development strategy.

In other words, maybe it’s time for a “call to action” to review your city’s GIS and see how it stacks up against the competition. Compare what data clients can overlay on a map, what informative reports they can self-generate, and how easy it is to use. All of this should be focused on identifying any changes needed to your GIS that will make it easier for clients to recognize that locating in your community will give them a competitive advantage in their marketplace. 

Finally, make no mistake, a modernized GIS is more than a functional tool that can be used to display information on a map or generate a report.  It’s also a powerful marketing vehicle that can be used to create a positive and professional image for any city.  It provides a stage that showcases a forward-thinking, progressive city that wants to make it easy for people to do business with. It’s time for cities to rise to the occasion and take on the competition with GIS. 

John Spencer is the founder of Villages Without Borders, a free online knowledge repository focused on helping cities take advantage of innovative technology to advance prosperity and quality of life. He is a former national director for business Strategies for Oracle in Canada, and was a senior director of consulting services for Unisys in the U.S.


Platforms & Programs