What Makes A City Smart?

Source: Smart Cities Connect on February 9, 2017 | Chelsea Collier

Since the US Department of Transportation (DOT) issued the Smart City Challenge in 2016, US cities have been fast tracking their smart city efforts. Today, you see greater levels of activity on all fronts. There are more pilot projects activating, more collaborations forming, more organizations are hosting conferences, more people are writing articles.  The volume of the conversation has increased and this is a positive step.

So as more people come to learn about smart cities, the same question naturally emerges: “What makes a city smart?”  This can seem like a daunting challenge as smart cities is broad topic with a wide variety of perspectives.  After studying smart cites for the past year and a half, I’ve had the great fortune to talk with numerous municipal and industry leaders. There are some commonalities between our discussions and so I’ve distilled some of their insights in order to highlight best practices and help other cities on their path.

1 – Smart cities have a formal method for collaboration.

Getting the right people in the room is a first and incredibly important step. A smart city agenda doesn’t work if it is sequestered to one sector; it requires city and elected leadership along with industry, entrepreneurs, nonprofits and university partners.  Some cities have formed councils, others have created strategic working groups or even stand-alone nonprofits. Whatever the structure, the idea is that is a mechanism for collaboration must be in place.

Each member of this ecosystem is critical and they all must be engaged.  Governors, mayors and council members set the vision, while city staff execute. Private sector corporate leaders provide vast research and development resources along with infrastructure investment.  Startups bring ingenuity and new approaches. Nonprofits ground the conversation into what really matters for a city, ensuring that equity remains a focal point. Finally universities provide an academic approach, leveraging their faculty, facilities and student populations.

A great example of a city that gets this right is San Diego. Long before the Smart City Challenge, CleanTech San Diego served as an early catalyst for smart city projects. They played a critical role in convening the private and public sector and aligning the region’s priorities. Thanks in great part to these early efforts, San Diego is now recognized in the smart city space for their leadership in sustainability. City leadership like David Graham have championed pilot projects such as a recent effort to implement, sensor-based technologies through their transportation corridors to reduce congestion and carbon emissions while increasing mobility efficiency.

2 – Smart cities have a strategic focus.

Every city has to start somewhere. Choosing one area to rally around gives stakeholders a tangible goal in which they can track progress and show measurable results.  For some cities this starts with their greatest needs, and perhaps this is why the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge was embraced with such fervor. No one likes to be stuck in traffic.

But many cities have moved beyond transportation, pushing to make their name in broader subject areas. For example, Phoenix has done a stupendous job with efforts around their open data initiative. Mayor Stanton has made open data a priority and this kind of thought leadership has resulted in events like the Smart City Hack 2016 and the Cisco IoT Challenge designed to reduce landfill waste. Also Phoenix is now seeking applications to receive funding for US Ignite gigabit development.  This momentum begins when the right mechanisms for collaboration are in place and the topic is focused and clearly communicated. It is no accident that when these steps are followed, unique public private partnerships and active entrepreneur ecosystem are the result. Keep an eye on the Greater Phoenix area. It is an impressive community that works collaboratively at the local and state level.

3 – Smart cities put the right policies in place.

Time and time again, I hear stories of inspired city leaders who are ready to usher in a new era of civic innovation only to be thwarted by aged policies. Regulations that may have been well-intended at the time now act as barriers in a smart city landscape. Nowhere is that more evident than in the mad dash to implement next-generation fiber.  This applies to both the effort to bolster existing 4G infrastructure with enhancing technologies, like small cells, as well as the incredible initiative to build out 5G capabilities required to accommodate the massive influx of sensors and data that comes as part of the smart city package.

And while 5G may be a few years away, the time to put the appropriate policies in place and remove the restrictive right-of-way rules is now. A checklist on how to effectively navigate and implement future-ready policies is available here.  I have had the opportunity to engage with elected and local leadership at Digi.City Connects events in both San Diego and Phoenix and have been so encouraged by the forward-thinking attitudes across public and private sectors. These cities get it. And because they are putting these critical steps in place, they are quickly rising to the top of cities leading smart city initiatives across the US.

The right policy agenda begins with an attitude to think and do things differently. For example, when Uber sought a location to test their autonomous vehicles. Governor Ducey extended an invitation, refusing to let regulatory issues get in the way of some of the most exciting technology of this decade. The desire to overcome the mundane in order to achieve the incredible is a hallmark of smart city leadership.

4 – Smart cities engage their citizens and residents.

I’ve written pretty extensively about this topic and for good reason. All too often, citizen engagement at the local level has been relegated to those individuals who can attend city council meetings. Don’t get me wrong, a council meeting is a wonderful tool, but for many people, spending hours at city hall is not a viable option. While it is certainly true that many people across the US are turned off by politics, my belief is that many who don’t participate simply don’t have a way that they can meaningfully engage in civic life. This is especially true on the local level, where the relevance and impact is high.

The City of San Diego is attempting to overcome this issue through the use of citizen engagement apps that encourage interaction and dialogue between City Hall and the local community. They package smart city projects as a source of pride for San Diegans, showcasing how the city is leading the country with their sustainability initiatives. Likewise, during my time in Phoenix, I had the honor of engaging directly with Senator Bob Worsley, who has taken an active role in how technology is boosting economic growth for the state, particularly in the area of urban transportation. This type of leadership takes the conversation beyond the city level and turns it into a rally-point issue for all of Arizona.

Now more than ever, I am encouraged by the increased commitment, capability and interest of cities across the US. San Diego and Phoenix are highlighted here as a result of being able to visit these cities and see first hand how their local leadership is pushing hard and with great care to introduce new levels of innovation. I hope to visit many more municipalities in the coming months and welcome the opportunity to learn more about activities across the country. There is so much momentum and excitement and most importantly, so much promise for how technology can play a role in creating better, more efficient, more effective and more connected cities.

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