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Smart Cities Should Get Back to Basics with Data-Driven Work

Now that the initial hype around the smart cities movement has begun to fade, gov tech leaders must examine how to use those technologies to do the most good for citizens and stakeholders alike.

The way that government technology is contemplated, procured and ultimately implemented is experiencing a shift. Many predictions are swirling about the future of smart city initiatives and projects. Some industry leaders have gone as far as to declare the partial death of the smart city movement. While many government IT managers have fully embraced and championed the smart city cause, others have chosen a more measured and cautious approach.

Multiple state chief information officers have spoken publicly about getting “back to basics” and taking a slower approach to move further ahead over the longer term. Blockchain, 5G and augmented reality are amazing technologies but are not transforming lives — at least not just yet. Many technology leaders have openly or privately pondered whether the smart city movement has resulted in too much smart city hysteria. The smart city moniker can mean different things to different people, especially our citizens. Even the term “smart city” inadvertently makes it sound like all innovation originates from cities. States, counties and other special agencies are often ground zero for innovation and new approaches.

Several other factors have slowed smart city initiatives. Procurement remains a formidable barrier, as technology budgets are tight and purchasing processes are antiquated. Most IT shops are underfunded and have limited staffing. These teams are also grappling with increasing cybersecurity threats, which show no signs of slowing down. Presidential primary and general elections and heightened geopolitical tensions make for challenging times. CIOs, CISOs and other leaders are funneling any disposable time, money and talent into improving their security posture, leaving less bandwidth for smart city efforts.

Many CIOs and IT directors have cooled to the smart city arms race in favor of a more measured and practical approach. Cutting edge over bleeding edge. Inclusion over hype. Less jargon and fewer buzzwords. User-centered design has taken center stage in cities like Chicago and Indianapolis. A new focus on the nuts-and-bolts citizen issues like paying bills, customer service and digital engagement. Smart city “FOMO” (fear of missing out) has affected not only the technology staff, but also elected officials, city and county managers, and other stakeholders.

As CIOs, some of our partners and vendors have contributed to the smart city FOMO. Often well-intentioned, certain groups have bombarded us with the latest and greatest smart city widget or service. Many of these products have been around for a while or used in other industries. The smart city label was added to these products and services to create a sense of urgency. Specific ideas have stood the test of time over the past decade. Other approaches have appropriately fallen by the digital wayside.

Smart city technology isn’t very smart if it doesn’t cater to the vast majority of our residents. We’ve witnessed this transformation with the open data movement. The earliest launches of open data portals typically were massive dumps of raw data. The portals were treasure troves for data geeks, but didn’t do much for 95 percent of citizens. The new generation of open data portals offers better user interfaces, videos, narratives and, most importantly, context.

The smartest cities (and others) are making decisions based on data, evidence and insights. The most intelligent cities are breaking down silos through cross-collaboration, automation and APIs. These cities are putting the citizen experience first with a focus on those with the greatest need. The most strategic IT leaders have an eye on the future with each hardware and software decision. We need to pave the way to allow maximum flexibility and compatibility as future smart city projects become more affordable and practical. Our stakeholders and taxpayers expect and demand no less.


Smart Cities
Luke Stowe is CIO and interim director of administrative services for Evanston, Ill. One of Government Technology's Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2018, he works to bridge the gap between technology and business practices.