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To Tackle Urban Problems, City Governments Have to Get Smarter (Contributed)

Harnessing the data and technology to meet the challenge of doing more with less is the biggest feat of getting a smart city plan off the ground.

Although 80 percent of Americans live in cities, urban issues are often put on the nation’s back burner. But residents still expect their city governments to deliver the day-to-day services that make or break their quality of life. 

The recently concluded U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) brought together local officials from all over the country. Under the leadership of the new USCM president, Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin, they discussed three major themes: infrastructure, innovation and inclusion. Their constituents are impatient to see progress in all of these areas — and cities have to figure out how to deliver it in the face of serious fiscal constraints. 

One path to solving those problems is making their cities “smarter” — that is, harnessing data and digital technology to meet the challenge of doing more with less. Technology alone can’t solve every urban problem. But it’s a powerful and cost-effective tool for helping cities accelerate progress. In fact, newly published research from the McKinsey Global Institute finds that cities could use smart technologies to improve the quality of life in tangible ways — for instance, shortening the average commute by up to 30 minutes or reducing crime incidents by 20 to 30 percent. 

Local governments have been sounding the alarm about aging and inadequate infrastructure for years. As anyone who spends rush hour fuming in traffic every day can tell you, traffic and transit have become major quality-of-life issues in cities from coast to coast. Everyone wants better infrastructure, but public budgets are tight.  

Smart technologies, from the Internet of Things to predictive analytics systems, can make infrastructure investments go further. They can extend the useful life of roads, bridges and transit systems while helping them carry more capacity. They can smooth the flow of traffic, offer new commuting options, and respond to changing demand patterns. If population growth surges in a far-flung neighborhood, adding a new subway line may take years and cost billions. By contrast, an on-demand minibus service geared to current commuting patterns could be up and running much faster — and it could be funded by a private operator.

In a digital world, local governments have new flexibility to innovate and iterate. Every city generates oceans of data, and local agencies are starting to get creative in what they do with it. They are learning to experiment, not only with digital systems but with bolder urban-planning policies that complement those technologies.  

The drive to make cities smarter isn’t just about what government agencies do. It’s also about creating environments where companies, universities and nonprofits bring innovation to bear on public problems. Many digital solutions that are changing the urban fabric, from e-ride-hailing to telemedicine, come from the private sector.

In some cases, the key is putting real-time information into the hands of the public, empowering them to make better decisions and contribute to overall city performance. Smart apps encourage people to use transit during off-hours, to change routes, to use less energy and water and to do so at different times of day, and to reduce strains on the health-care system through preventive self-care.

Smart cities may sound like playgrounds for the young, affluent and tech-savvy. But they don’t have to be. Local governments can use digital tools to build more inclusive communities. They can use data and technology to connect vulnerable populations with vital services, engage with seniors, and help people with disabilities navigate the urban environment.

Technology is already changing the relationship between municipal governments and the people they serve. Constituents can have two-way conversations with public officials via social media. Cities can use mobile apps to crowdsource data and invite the public to report problems, gaining thousands of eyes and ears on the ground.

Although the United States now trails most other developed nations in voter turnout, cities can revitalize civic participation at the local level, creating digital channels that invite the public to weigh in on planning issues and budget priorities. These types of platforms can be implemented with relatively little investment, but they can make people feel that their voices are being heard.

Cities have an opportunity to step up and lead at this critical time. The economy is humming, and interest rates are still low enough to invest in our future. Most important, we are in the midst of a digital revolution, and we have only seen a glimpse of how digital tools and data might transform the urban environment.

State governments and federal agencies can accelerate change by sharing best practices, pooling demand for technologies across multiple cities, providing infrastructure and helping mid-size cities make the leap. Cities have always been the world’s laboratories for solutions — and there’s every reason to hope they will put technology to work in ways that will make a real difference to the people who call them home.

Navjot Singh is managing partner of McKinsey & Company’s Boston office and a leader of McKinsey’s Public Sector Practice. Jonathan Woetzel is a director of the McKinsey Global Institute, where Jaana Remes is a partner.

Navjot Singh is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company and Director of the McKinsey Center for Government. Jonathan Woetzel is director of the McKinsey Global Institute.