7 Steps on the Road to Becoming a Smart City

The idea of "smart cities" is a complicated one and means different things to different people, but all definitions have a core element -- using technology and the data it collects to help address complex challenges. Here's how to get started.

by / June 5, 2015

Cities that apply advanced analytics to the data they collect can make better decisions and gain new insight into crime prevention, emergency mitigation and many other areas, according to a white paper. The paper, Smart City as a Service – Using Analytics to Equip Communities for Data-Driven Decisions from Frost & Sullivan, asserts that with new analytic capabilities available as a service, many cities can easily, quickly and cost-effectively join the ranks of “smart cities.”

“The idea of ‘smart cities’ is a complicated one, and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said Brian Cotton, vice president of Frost & Sullivan Information and Communication Technologies Growth Consulting. “But all definitions have a core element – it’s a way a municipal government can use technology and the data it already collects to help address some complex challenges, such as improving budgetary efficiency, identifying fraud in social services programs, or scheduling city work in a more logical, efficient manner.”

As citizens demand higher levels of public safety and service from government, advanced data management tools and analytics can help mayors, police chiefs and city managers meet these demands, said Cotton. Such strategic use of data also tends to improve decision-making.

“Politicians, administrators, etc. can use analytics, decision support and facts to inform their decisions rather than relying on gut instinct,” Cotton said. “They can begin to see patterns that maybe were hidden before and perhaps come to a different decision, or predict what could happen in the future so they don’t have to scramble and perhaps make a mistake.”

Cotton said a number of cities are leading the “smart city” charge. One example is Detroit, where an open data initiative was launched in February. The purpose of the initiative, called Government Open Data Access To All (GO DATA) is to increase the accessibility and availability of certain data collected or maintained by the city. The goal, according to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, is to create a more open, collaborative and accountable relationship between the city government and the people it serves.

“It gives us a common place to start a dialog,” said Detroit CIO Beth Niblock. “We can all look at the data together. So if we’re in a neighborhood community group, we can look at a common set of data to at least begin a conversation. Also, when you put your data out there, it inherently makes your data stronger.”

Detroit’s open data initiative is part of a broader effort to make city government more accessible to residents. Already the city has launched a mobile app showing the real time location of Detroit Department of Transportation buses, unveiled a newly redesigned and more useful website, and launched a new mobile app called “Improve Detroit,” which will allow anyone to report a range of service issues, including water main breaks, broken street lights, illegal dumping, abandoned vehicles and more.

While Detroit is a good example of a city on its way to becoming a “smart city,” Cotton said many cities do not have the personnel or skill sets to implement or support these capabilities on municipal or departmental computing platforms. Detroit has engaged the help of software-as-a-services provider Socrata to help the city make its open data portal a reality.

“Many cities may feel a pressure to try to implement advanced analytics on their own, because of concerns over data security or privacy, or that the capital costs are too large,” Cotton said. “This may drive them to take on too much that they are not well equipped to handle or to abandon their aspirations because the challenges are too great.”

The good news is, any size city can become a smart city. Whether big or small, the process is generally the same. Cotton suggested that cities begin by taking the following seven steps:

1. Study the concept. Becoming a smart city is not simply about becoming a technology demonstration site. It’s about accomplishing something. Cotton suggests that cities first study the concept and make sure it’s truly what they want to do.

2. Discover the needs and priorities among the city’s citizens and businesses. It’s one thing to build something and have no one use it. It’s another thing to build something to meet very specific needs. It’s also a great way to score political points.

3. Create plans and communicate the smart city vision, then get stakeholders behind it.

4. Consider the cloud. Your city may not be able to do all the implementation, operation and maintenance necessary to support an advanced analytics capability. By procuring these services in the cloud, providers take care of the technical issues and city officials can focus on running their cities.

5. Determine the best engagement model. There are four engagement models cities often use:

  • The first is "Build Own, Operate," where the city is the primary contractor and delivers the smart city services, so operation and maintenance are completely under the city’s control.
  • Second, in the "Build, Operate, Transfer" model, the city appoints someone to build the smart city infrastructure and then the city takes over).
  • Third is the "Open Business Model," where the city allows any qualified company or business to build city infrastructure and provide city services under specific guidelines and regulations.
  • The final model is the "Public-Private Partnership," in which the city works with a private-sector partner.

6. Figure out the mechanics. Issue an RFP to procure the technologies and the services, and get everyone lined up.

7. Set up initial projects. Start small and scale up to avoid getting overwhelmed. 

Justine Brown Contributing Writer