Editor's Note: This piece was written by Bob Benstead, vice president of public sector at Infor. The opinions represented in this piece are independent of Smart Cities Dive's views.
When you hear the term "smart cities," what does it mean to you? If you ask your colleague down the hall or around the corner, do you think they will come up with the same answer?
They probably will not — and that is one measure of the power of the concept that has recently taken city governments and their private sector partners by storm. As cloud computing and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies transform every aspect of municipal management, communities across the country are realizing they can optimize their operations, deliver value for money, and squeeze more impact and value out of every scarce tax dollar they collect.
Around the world, more than 600 cities now have at least one project underway in the field of activity that is expected to reach $400 billion in value by 2020. And the different applications for smart city technology and concepts are getting as varied and diverse as the menu of services a city provides.
Communities are infusing smart city principles into their approaches to urban planning, local transportation systems, environmental services, and emissions reductions. They are relying on smart technologies to optimize their electricity grids and other infrastructure, deliver public internet access and optimize public safety, human resources management, financial planning, and inventory control.
Across all of these portfolios and many more, timely data is becoming the cornerstone of intelligent decision support, enabling municipal managers to understand public concerns, streamline budgeting and program planning, maximize operational efficiencies, attract business investment and tourism, and improve citizens’ quality of life.
It is a wide-ranging focus, but most smart city applications rely on the same mix of inputs — factors like progressive local planning, a smart strategy for technology investments, a focus on environmental sustainability alongside economic enablement, a commitment to transparency and public access, and effective use of social media. The smart city concept works because it incorporates citizen input while offering a palette of self-service tools for business, fully integrates management activities in challenging areas like water, transportation, and land management, and relies heavily on continuous data-gathering, monitoring, and analysis.
Smart cities in practice
It sounds great in principle. But what does it look like on the ground, where city staff spend their days scrambling to meet high expectations and deliver seamless customer service at the level of government that is closest to citizens’ day-to-day lives?
For a water authority, it might mean deploying smart city technology to analyze sensor data from pumps, combining it with time-of-use charges from the local electrical utility, and saving money by running systems when power rates are low.
Water managers can also use advanced analytics to track revenue streams, spot trends for slow customer payments or bad debt, and adapt rate structures to match.
Bylaw officers can map and analyze the timing, frequency, and locations of code enforcement incidents, then organize neighborhood sweeps to reduce or prevent graffiti and noise.
Planning and development offices can streamline permitting and cut precious days off the approvals process, using a modern engagement platform that is more convenient for developers and more accessible for citizen advocates.
And those examples are just the start. Wherever there is scope in a large, complex municipal administration to simplify processes, cut costs, boost stakeholder engagement, or reinforce citizens’ and employees’ level of satisfaction with their city government, there is a good chance that someone has dreamed up a smart city app for that. And if they have not, if you are the first to identify the need, the right technology partner can probably help you address it.
Bringing it down to earth
For communities that have been hearing about the drive toward smart cities and are considering first steps, the sheer breadth of the opportunity is a blessing and a curse. It is so wide-ranging that there are not very many things a municipality cannot do differently or better by adopting a tech-enabled, smart city strategy. But to tap into that potential, it is important to narrow-cast, by focusing on key priorities and picking the tools and options that meet the most pressing local needs.
Smart city adoption works best in cities that develop and adopt a tailored, winnable approach, rather than trying to "boil the ocean."
The program has to have top-to-bottom support. Elected officials and senior management must understand what the city is trying to achieve and buy into the vision. Stakeholders and citizens must have a clear picture of how they benefit; of what is in it for them.
A strong, effective governance model is the cornerstone of any smart city initiative, ensuring that decisions and strategic investments are targeted, effective, and transparent.
Initial budgeting must be carried out with the longer term in mind. Smart city investments deliver multiple returns, from the financial to the social, but they do not pay off overnight. If citizens and stakeholders share the vision for a local smart city program, it will be easier for city representatives to make a case for the initial spending.
Smart city technology lends itself to projects that break down silos and allow multiple players to bring their unique strengths to the table. So, the best smart city initiatives are cooperative efforts, bringing together programs and departments within a single jurisdiction and looking for synergies across multiples cities or counties.
With all of those ingredients in place, many municipalities are finding they can get strong, visionary smart city initiatives off the ground, even with limited or lukewarm support from senior levels of government. Eventually, nothing succeeds like success — so once your program begins proving its worth, you will be in a much better position to reach out for state or federal support.
If you are considering or actively planning a smart city program, you should be on the lookout for a technology partner with the experience to help you set priorities and find the most efficient, coherent path to meeting your objectives.