4 ideas to jumpstart your smart cities transformation

Wed, 2016-09-28 11:28 -- Kevin Ebi

In any transformation, the first step is often the most difficult step. During the opening plenary of the Council’s second-annual Smart Cities Week in Washington, D.C., technology leaders from all levels of government shared advice for getting the ball rolling.

We’ve compiled four of their top tips below and as you’ll see, there are a few common themes. First, start by thinking about the needs of your citizens and then thinking about how technology can help. Second, for a variety of reasons, you have to work together. If you pool resources, stretch solutions and look at the data, you can leap over many the obstacles that would otherwise get in your way.

Do nothing, and you’ll likely be left behind. As Smart Cities Council Chairman Jesse Berst explained to the gathering, there’s likely to be more change in the next 10 years than there was in the last 100. – Kevin Ebi

1. Think about people first
It’s easy to fixate on technology, but technology isn’t your goal. Improving the lives of your citizens is. Technology is the tool for reaching that goal.

“The reason I think smart cities are important is because of the impact on people,” said Brian Kenner, deputy mayor of planning and economic development for Washington, D.C. “It enables someone to spend more time with their daughter. It enables people to use their time more efficiently. That is why smart cities are important.”

But it’s not just about launching that technology. It’s also about giving more people access to it. That’s what will give more people the chance to raise their living standards and become the leaders of tomorrow.

2. Don’t solve one problem; solve every problem
Think big. Think beyond the current challenge that’s on your plate. Too often cities look only at one thing at a time, ignoring broader opportunities to transform.

David Graham, San Diego’s deputy chief operating officer, says cities much move from “one-off projects” to platforms that deliver a wider range of results.

Seattle is working toward that goal by bringing city departments together, moving them away from managing their technology independently.

Michael Mattmiller, Seattle’s chief technology officer, says he’s trying to encourage departments to work together by showing them the value of collaboration, rather than mandating that.

“Everyone thinks that their business is unique,” Mattmiller said. “What we’re trying to do is broker a conversation. Here’s the art of the possible and here’s why it’s so important to work together.”

And beyond that, cities and technology companies need to work together too. Cities need to clearly communicate their goals; technology companies need to adapt so they’re solving the problems that need to be solved. It’s a partnership that needs to be a win-win.

“We’re all trying to get to the same place,” Graham said.

3. Figure out what works
Don’t wait for the results of some huge research study that may or may not apply to your city. Try things in your own community and work with universities or research experts to figure out what works and why.

“When you think of research, don’t think of the things that are happening in the ivory towers,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It’s very important to do this research in the wild.”

And your work doesn’t stop when the first numbers come in. Research is a continuous process. Use the results as part of a continuous feedback loop to refine your approach.

4. Don’t let funding block you
A lack of funding or other resources is one of the biggest obstacles that holds cities back. But it doesn’t have to hold you back.

“Even in the tightest budgets, there is still funding,” said Archana Vemulapalli, chief technology officer for Washington, D.C. “It just gets prioritized.”

To get your initiative on the priority list, you need to form coalitions. Work with others to ensure that your efforts help boost their success. That gives them an incentive to back your efforts and ensure that you get funding, even when times are tight.