Getting Smart about Smart Cities - CivicWell

News & Media

Getting Smart About Smart Cities

by Kif Scheuer

Climate Change & Energy

Community Design


July 31, 2015


As technology proliferates to all facets of our lives, and citizens are increasingly connected, Local governments are increasingly hearing about “smart cities” technologies that combine deep digital strategies, big data, and citizen connectivity to increase the efficiency and engagement of the public sector. Many of these smart city solutions are specifically aimed at helping local government to advance sustainability goals.

As local governments are enthusiastic about opportunities to improve their own operational efficiencies and even more interested in ways to bring 21st century technological opportunities to their communities there is a lot of excitement about becoming a smart city, but as the stewards of the people’s resources, local governments are understandably cautious as well. Fortunately, our colleagues over at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, have recognized the opportunity and the challenge behind smart cities, and have just released an in-depth guide “Getting Smart About Smart Cities” for North American cities. We recommend you take a look a the overall report, but summarize key points here.

What are Smart Cities and why is this an important sustainability opportunity

Communities are incredibly complex systems. As the internet has exploded in the last 2 decades, and even more recently as sensors and data management tools have become more widespread and cost-effective, we have witnessed an incredible digitization of every aspect of community life. From the individual with a smartphone looking for a job, to the business with a data center managing their sales within and around our cities, to the church engaging with it’s members through social media, every element of our community infrastructure both hard and soft now has a digital layer. As the effective hub of community design through land-use, infrastructure, and civic activities, local governments are both affected by this digitization, and increasingly called upon to respond. Since sustainability efforts are of necessity cross-cutting and often require engagement of stakeholders from all levels of society, it makes sense that this digitization would represent a huge opportunity for local governments to advance environmental initiatives.

But what does it mean to be a smart city? After reviewing several potential definitions, the report’s authors offer the following definition “Smart cities” solutions use advanced information and communication technologies to collect, communicate, and analyze data to improve the design and operations of a city’s core systems and programs, as well as citizen engagement, for greater efficiency and effectiveness, thus improving the city’s sustainability, resilience, bottom line and quality of life.” Springing from this definition and working with high-level sustainability, technology & innovation practitioners from within 12 US & Canadian city governments, this report identifies  “smart city” tools and approaches that will best advance sustainability goals and increase citizen engagement.

Smart City Strategies

After outlining the opportunity and developing some frameworks for considering smart city strategies, the report outlines seven key considerations and promising practices to advancing smart cities initiatives.

  1. Connect Government Departments through Digital Strategies
    “When it comes to smart cities, sustainability directors and information technology directors converge on a shared purpose: to find synergies across departments, sectors, and even jurisdictions that can advance technology and sustainability goals simultaneously. Given this context, most practitioners recognize that instead of diving into technological solutions, a better place to start is to find common interests and clear connections across departments.”
  2. Embrace New Staff Capacities and the Changing Role of IT
    “Many city leaders consider IT staff as service providers to other departments, not as advisors helping create and drive strategic priorities…As sustainability departments embark on new data and technology projects, they are recognizing a new role for IT and in the process building new staff expertise.”
  3. Develop Partnerships with the Tech Sector
    “Because local governments often do not have the capacity or desire to operate as an exclusive “provider” of smart city solutions, their participation with private industry – for example, through the provision of data or convening of stakeholders – is often essential.”
  4. Master the Art of Innovation and Rapid Adoption
    “As city staff begin to reimagine their goals and initiatives through a smart city lens, they are working to identify problems that are at a scale where entrepreneurs can innovate…Some cities are addressing this disconnect head-on by focusing on new innovation practices that tailor the creative process to the needs of cities.”
  5. Engage Citizens through Open Source Apps
    “More cities are turning to crowdsourcing applications like MindMixer and SeeFixClick to engage citizens in government, and they are publishing open data sets to drive government innovation by civic hackers….these initiatives represent a significant change in the way local governments interact with their citizens, as new platforms are rolled out, cities are experiencing new challenges and even unintended consequences.”
  6. Focus on Data Privacy
    “While there is a clear benefit to making city data available for smart city technologies, cities need to be mindful of risks to privacy of citizens and businesses….Cities are rightfully cautious about how data is made public and they are establishing, publishing, and enforcing privacy rules and regulations meant to keep up with rapidly changing smart city applications.”/li>
  7. Reinvent Innovation-Friendly Procurement Systems
    “Several cities are re-examining procurement systems in light of the smart city and cleantech markets, and creating new systems that are both more conducive to innovation and sensitive to transparency and equity needs.”

Moving Forward

While the promise of smart cities as an enabler of urban sustainability has received a lot of attention, it’s still early days. The guide works to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors, and to help city governments find their voice among the growing digital cacophony.

One way we can help bridge such gaps is through greater direct public private dialogue. LGC is helping to foster such dialogue by supporting VERGE’s City Summit for the second year in a row. This year City Summit will be on October 26th in San Jose, and the theme is “Partnerships and Financing for Resilient Infrastructure” and will be focusing on public-private partnerships that facilitate a more effective dialogue between cities and the private sector to scale up solutions that increase cities’ sustainability and resilience. The goal is to identify replicable models that allow cities to implement vital programs and technologies within budget constraints.

The invitation-only event brings together the insights and resources of C40, ICLEI, Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities, CDP Cities, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network along with LGC. The goal of this year’s City Summit is to develop and facilitate a rich and rewarding working session focusing on the new toolkits and financing models. Participants should plan to come ready to roll up their sleeves and engage — and should expect to walk away with new insights and connections. City Summit is part of the larger VERGE conference (October 26-29, San Jose) that focuses on the technologies and systems that accelerate sustainability solutions across sectors in a climate-constrained world.