Cisco smart cities: Unleashing the market with 'lighthouse' projects that prove the case

Tue, 2013-07-23 06:10 -- Jesse Berst

Q&A with Hardik Bhatt, Director, Business Development, Smart+Connected Communities

Hardik Bhatt of CiscoHardik Bhatt is an affable young executive who has played on "both sides of the street." He has that diplomatic sheen you often see in top-level consultants who deal with big-dollar projects. And in government officials who must maintain a calm and diplomatic front to all sides.

Hardik has been in both roles. He began his career as a consultant, first at Tata Consultancy, then at Oracle. Then he went for an Executive MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management,

From there, he went to the public side, as Chicago's Chief Information Officer and Commissioner of the Department of Innovation and Technology. As CIO, Hardik led 250+ employees and consultants with an annual budget over $150 million. As Commissioner, he spearheaded the city's initiative for universal and affordable broadband.

"Like many cities, we initially tried to build citywide WiFi," he told me. "But we realized that was not the answer. If we wanted digital excellence, we had to let the private sector handle it – a city cannot do it by itself." Under Hardik's leadership, the city entered into more than three dozen partnerships with foundations, state government, federal government and the private sector for building Digital Excellent in Chicago.

After nearly five years as CIO, he returned to the private sector at Cisco, a Smart Cities Council Lead Partner, where he oversaw the company's large, marquee smart city projects for the Americas.

He cites Barcelona, Rio and Tokyo as cities he likes to visit. Tokyo illustrates the benefits of building a robust infrastructure. "I like the seamlessness of connectivity there," he said. "And the feeling of safety."

He considers himself an urban creature, due to his appreciation for arts and culture. "My wife and I are hooked on the theater – especially Indian theater, and we are learning to appreciate American theater." Trained in Indian classical music, he sings and plays harmonium.

As we talked, I was particularly intrigued to hear him say:

  • Cisco sees two "sides" to the current Smart and Connected Communities market, the public sector and the real estate sector
  • Cisco is fully committed to the Internet of Things, and the smart city concept is one of the four key markets under that umbrella
  • Cisco sees itself a "horizontal enabler" building a converged, unified network platform with vertical solutions on top
  • Cisco's strategy to unleash the market is to build highly visible, "lighthouse" projects that prove the case

You'll find more of his insights below.

-- Jesse Berst, July 2013

Has the smart cities market hit the tipping point?

That depends on how you define the market. If you define it strictly as revenue from the public sector, then we are still far from the tipping point. But if you include public-private partnerships – where the revenue is right now – then the tipping point may be closer at hand.

We see two aspects to the market. The first is the public sector, driven by municipal government. The second is real estate and smart buildings, driven mainly by the private sector. As in healthcare, technology has yet to make a major dent in real estate. But finally, many companies are starting to understand the possibilities.

What areas of the world are leading the way?

In the public sector, Europe is ahead with cities such as Barcelona and Nice. (Site of Cisco's "Connected Boulevard" project in Nice is pictured here.) And Russia is looking to build a new Silicon Valley. On the real estate side, Korea, China, India and Canada are doing good things.

The U.S. Public Sector is slow in adopting the technology because cities are grappling with other issues. There is less focus on applying technology as a problem solver. In general terms, the U.S. has typically been a leader in these kinds of transformations. This time, it is looking to copy success stories from elsewhere.

How important is the smart cities market to Cisco?

We have made a major commitment to the Internet of Things – or, as we call it, the Internet of Everything. Under that banner, smart cities is one of the four pillars. The other three are manufacturing, transportation and energy.

What is Cisco's place in the smart city ecosystem?

We are the enabler. We produce a converged, unified network platform for running a city. In that sense, we span a city "horizontally."

Second, in certain vertical markets we build solutions on top of that platform with partners such as Schneider Electric, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Accenture, IBM and many more.

City CIOs care about whether a company's offerings positively impact the budget and the quality of life of citizens and, most importantly, help create jobs. They don't care about who it is, they care about the end result. Cities don't want to spend years building solutions and ecosystem, so Cisco is bringing them ready-made partnerships.

What does Cisco do better than any other company?

We have thought leadership in the Smart and Connected Communities market and major lighthouse engagements that showcase these principles.

We are the leaders in the core-enabling network platform. Cisco lays out the core and the city can use that seamless, unified platform to manage all its assets and programs.

We are also notable for our partner ecosystem. Our entire organization is focused on partnerships. Our partnerships come in two flavors. Ecosystem partners build joint solutions with us. Channel partners sell our products. We literally have tens of thousands of channel partners who are trained and certified.

When Cisco wins in a competitive situation, why does it win?

Because of our experience in the smart and connected communities space. The Cisco approach has been the public sector, plus real estate, plus selected verticals.

Songdo, South KoreaOur strategy has been to create "iconic" projects – lighthouse engagements that prove the case and get great visibility. We have nine such projects, including Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Songdo (Korea), London, Toronto and Lake Nona (Florida). And we have close to 100 other accounts around the world that are vertically focused.

Are there any common misconceptions about Cisco and its smart city capabilities?

Cisco is perceived as "the Internet plumbers." Yet over the last three years, we've come quite far to really focus on business architectures and solving real-life business problems. We are even helping to figure out business models and how to fund projects. I think the perception is changing fast. We are increasingly seen as problem solvers, not just as people selling gear.

What is a favorite smart city project?

It is hard to name a single example, because each one is a different focus. In Barcelona, it's about government services. The city is quite forward thinking. Toronto has a real estate focus. There is no single buying center, so we are working with multiple developers. At Lake Nona, we are focused on building a medical city.

Are there any city leaders you particularly admire?

The current and previous mayors of Barcelona are quite progressive. Songdo has gone through two or three mayors, and each one has kept up the momentum.

City leaders in general are very receptive to smart city ideas, so there is no lack of leadership there. Rather, it is on us as the industry to show how to execute these projects during this tough economy and to prove the real return on investment.

What is the single most important thing a city leader should do to position his city for success?

Define a clear end goal. What does the city want to be, not just at the next election, but 10 or 20 years from now? As Cisco executive Wim Elfrink says, the competition is no longer between nations, it is between cities. So a city must have a clear understanding how it can compete globally.

Next, create a step-by-step action plan. Third, get the right partners from both the vendor community and the nonprofit world.

We often say that there are five essentials:

1.     Visionary leadership

2.     Smart regulation, which must precede smart city projects lest they be stifled

3.     Global open standards, which are needed so solutions can interoperate

4.     Public-private partnerships

5.     An ecosystem of compatible partners

What do you want city leaders to know about Cisco?

We are here to change how city residents live, work, learn and play -- to improve the overall quality of life. On the government side, we are here to provide efficiency in government services and allow them to build new services on a unified infrastructure. What's more, we want to help find new revenue streams for governments, developers, citizens and businesses.

What's next in this sector?

I think we'll start to see the rise of "smart countries." For instance, Maylasia has a national plan to transform itself into a developed country by 2020. I would also cite Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India. We are in the very early days of that next era.