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The Smart Way to Build a Smart City (Industry Perspective)

City and digital government leaders must demonstrate clear value, tangible outcomes and engaging experiences for their inhabitants, delivering public service for the future.

At its most basic, a smart city is a city that uses information and communications technology — including traditional IT and advanced Internet of Things (IoT) technologies — to improve not only the way it operates, but also the services it delivers to its citizens. It leverages digital technologies across infrastructure — including transport and traffic management, construction and buildings, energy and water supply, and waste management, to name a few — as well as across services, including public administration, health and safety, culture and education.

So-called smart cities might provide a glimpse of the future, but there’s still a big gap between the hype and the reality. Many smart city initiatives apply technology-driven solutions to today’s problems and fail to re-design systems and services with digital citizens in mind.

Smart cities operate at their best when a people-centric approach is taken, with the belief that technology should work for and on behalf of the users. What truly makes a city "smart" isn’t just the technology, but the use of technology to solve a city's most pressing issues. It’s a city that addresses the right pain points and leverages the best opportunities for communities, individuals and businesses. "Smart" development is about putting time, resources and efforts in the right places in order to realize actual benefits.

City and digital government leaders must demonstrate clear value, tangible outcomes and engaging experiences for their inhabitants, delivering public service for the future. Everyone wants to see real outcomes, such as more efficient transport systems, reduced water and energy bills, and more livable buildings. And most people aren’t concerned with the technology making those benefits possible. Increasingly, people’s expectations are for simple functionality, and ideally they have an excellent experience along the way.

Smart cities, therefore, must start with the needs of their inhabitants, not the technology; they should build new services through human-centered design, putting people first. Cities need to learn from and work with each other and the technology industry to lead the next generation of initiatives that will drive the greatest benefits for all.

Rebuilding City Hall for the Digital Age

It is often the case that new technologies are used simply to speed up existing processes. But technology that is enabling smart cities, such as IoT,  can actually create entirely new ways of doing things for significantly greater benefit than just tweaking the old system. The advent of word processing software was first seen as a tool to speed up office typing pools, rather than as a way to replace them entirely, in a real transformation of the workplace. Today, smart-city initiatives can do the same thing, potentially transforming our cities. We are still in the early days, however, as just a few leaders are grappling with the kind of radical re-invention necessary to find new ways of running a city and providing value to inhabitants.

Where cities have started to do this, the results are impressive, reaching across old silos to enhance productivity for the whole organization. New York City’s DataBridge program, for example, integrated city data from a vast array of sources into a single analytical platform. Looking at data from multiple angles is leading to more insight-driven operations and delivering improvements across city departments. One has been a five-fold increase in the inspection "hit rate" of New York buildings so dangerous that they must be vacated — boosting return on investment and making the city safer.

Japan's Yokohama Smart City also demonstrates joined-up thinking in its ongoing efforts to cut CO2 emissions while boosting economic growth. Yokohama is seeking to rethink how it deals with energy use in a wide range of contexts: from people’s homes and cars through to the wider community, bringing together data from a range of city functions. This integrated approach rarely happens on its own; it requires new governance structures such as a dedicated executive to own and drive strategy. While some cities are setting up smart city boards to guide strategy, there is still a clear need to grapple with execution. To do so, leading cities such as Amsterdam, Chicago and Singapore have appointed cross-cutting CIO or CTO roles to turn strategy into reality.

Take Chicago, whose City Digital consortium, convened by UI Labs and involving a number of companies, academic institutions and the city itself, is using the city as a testbed for smart city projects and implementations. The consortium enables cross-sector collaboration to test joint development and joint deployment of real solutions for the smart city marketplace, so that once successful, they can be delivered at scale to a larger market. The first live projects include the mapping of underground infrastructure for monitoring and design collaboration purposes, and smart green infrastructure monitoring, which looks at the impact of identifying and examining green infrastructure installations on urban drainage foundations such as local flooding, transportation obstructions and water contamination.

Smart Cities Designed with People in Mind

Cities that are successfully undertaking smart city projects tend to focus on citizens and local businesses. In creating a new leadership model to deliver on digital government innovation, cities are focused on being transparent and efficient, and on improving citizen services and experiences.

New York City’s 311 program is a great example of a smart city program that's providing significant benefits by giving its users what they actually need and want. With more than 350,000 employees and 120 agencies, New York City offers nearly 4,000 different services to the city’s 8.3 million residents. To stay connected in “the city that never sleeps,” residents need efficient, 24/7 access to a wide range of customer services, and that’s where NYC 311 comes in.

NYC 311 was about fundamentally transforming the way in which the city operates. The integrated 311 solution provides a single point of entry to city government for all residents, visitors and businesses. Among the many benefits to citizens: 85 percent of calls are answered in 30 seconds or less, with an average answer speed of 30 seconds. In addition, 85 percent of 311 customers have their inquiry resolved during their initial call. NYC 311 has also reduced the burden on the city’s 911 emergency call system; eliminated duplication of services (previously multiple agencies performed the same or similar tasks); enabled the city to identify the greatest areas of need and efficiently and effectively direct resources to those areas; and enabled agencies to focus on their mission, rather than on call-taking. In short, the 311 project has improved the overall efficiency and delivery of city services, transforming the manner in which New Yorkers access government services and how agencies operate.

The Critical Building Blocks of a Smart City

What do public-sector organizations need to do to prepare themselves for smart cities?

First and foremost, it takes the understanding that one organization alone will not be able to solve all the city’s problems, that making the city a better place requires an ecosystem. Therefore, a smart city will convene all the relevant stakeholders:

  • the private sector, including corporations, small and medium-sized businesses and startups;
  • the public sector, including government agencies, NGOs and other civic partners (like neighborhood groups);
  • academia; and
  • the citizens themselves.
By establishing a governance and operating model that ensures everyone’s voices are heard — whether a public-private partnership or similar model — a successful smart city sets itself up for success from the start, engaging the right people at the right time on the right things. At the same time, a smart city must collaborate with other cities to share lessons learned and even co-invest in shared opportunities.

Just as important, a smart city must have alignment from within government’s ranks. There needs to be buy-in from senior leaders, and there must be a point of responsibility for a smart city strategy that has a clear eye on the objectives. For New York’s 311 program, project governance and interaction with city agencies were critical factors from the start. This open and ongoing agency collaboration with an eye on the final objectives enabled the team to make a successful transformation at a rapid pace.

Given that a smart city is one that uses information and communications technology to improve the way it operates, creating one requires a deep understanding of the latest technologies, particularly IoT technology. IoT enables devices and objects like traffic lights, streetlamps and sewer pipes to be equipped with sensors that can measure temperature, pressure and air quality, to name a few. And it enables all that data to be collected and analyzed to carry out predictive and preventative maintenance, just-in-time repairs, and to identify where improvements can be made based on real data, to name but a few benefits.

The data can hold hidden value, and once collected and analyzed, new solutions may present themselves that a smart city wasn’t even looking for, such as being able to predict — based on data collected over time — the information people would request around holidays, and preparing responses in advance with recorded messages to reduce the call handler requirements. Recognizing that our digital future requires new skills and capabilities, governments must bring in people capable of delivering on the promise of digital technologies. This will likely include professionals with backgrounds and experience in areas including design researchers, user-experience and user-interface designers, technical architects, big data analysts, product managers, design thinkers and others.

Just as a smart city must be open in terms of input and ecosystem collaboration, it must also be open in terms of technology, with open platforms that enable modular and forward-compatible solutions, ensuring it doesn’t become quickly outdated or pigeonhole future governments and city inhabitants.

The use of open platforms can help prepare cities for future technology advances, but maintaining other open technologies such as Application Program Interfaces (APIs) and publicly available data can offer benefits immediately. Published APIs allow third parties to integrate their systems with open platforms and cities’ data so that they can interact with that data and create services for inhabitants, without the need for cities to have to do the development themselves. MIT, for example, used open data to establish the living wage in different areas, and businesses then used this to adjust the way they remunerated employees, improving lives through public data, but not directly through the city.

Where to Start?

The approach to developing a smart city will depend on the city itself and key factors such as its size, the level of alignment between organizations within the city, the leadership and the strength of the strategy formulated at the start of the smart city transformation, among others. We recommend an approach where the vision and strategy are centralized and integrated across all sectors of the city, rather than tackled in silos — for example, with the transportation department doing a smart-parking project and the energy department doing a smart-buildings project, but without any correlation or alignment between the two. A siloed approach such as this will take longer to bring all the pieces together and reap the benefits of a coalesced, correlated set of initiatives.

At a minimum, the right foundation must be established to ensure success through the formulation of an all-encompassing strategy at the start of the transformation. This includes the right governance framework and operating model, as well as a good idea of what technology backbone will be required to meet city objectives and enable future development. As various projects and initiatives take place, there needs to be a feedback loop to readjust road maps continuously, learn from the past and ensure the current voice of inhabitants is always being heard. This is a key element of setting up the right governance and operating models to meet the requirements of inhabitants, and set the city up for success.

Feeding the Meter

Given the core role of technology in smart cities, many smart city efforts are spearheaded by the city’s IT department, often led by a visionary CIO or through the appointment of a chief digital officer. But the benefits of smart cities will, of course, be shared across many departments, including transportation, utilities, education, public safety and others — as well as by other parties such as telecommunications and utility companies whose infrastructure and services could play a major role in the future of smart cities.

Because of this, we are seeing a rise in new investment models, including shared-revenue models, where an upfront investment is shared among various parties and, likewise, tail-end revenues are shared proportionately among these parties. At the end of the day, the city will likely need to find creative ways of funding these initiatives, which can require considerable investments upfront. The city will also want to think about additional revenue streams — finding ways to extend smart city initiatives to bring in new net revenue that can help offset the costs of implementation overtime.

Moving Forward

If our cities are to meet the challenges of tomorrow, the smart city agenda needs more clarity, and more innovative and ambitious objectives. Better technology to support business as usual isn’t enough. By focusing on inhabitants, be they individuals, businesses or the community at large, and aiming for real outcomes that will impact them, city leaders can reinvent their institutions, improve services and build the infrastructure of the digital age in order to deliver public service for the future. Urban areas that fail to make the transition will, like the typing pool, be abandoned. But those that embrace a human-centered approach to their digital government strategy will thrive in the information and knowledge era.

Salomon Salinas is the smart cities lead for Accenture; Kira Gidron works with Accenture Mobility. Saloman can be reached at