Smart City

A Guide to Launching Smart City Projects

Smart city projects are all the rage now, but creating an intelligent city requires much more than installing new technology.

The future of the world is urban. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities, which will create 70% of the world’s GDP, according to the Pentagon. Many of these will be megacities with populations of ten million or more.

Managing such behemoth cities using traditional infrastructure will be impossible. So-called smart cities, or at least smarter cities, will be a necessity rather than a luxury—for both megacities as well as smaller cities also wrestling with their own set of problems. 

Creating smart cities, however, can be exceptionally challenging. Here are some guidelines:

Create a Clear Road Map

Because comprehensive smart cities initiatives can take a decade or more to implement, they demand a solid game plan. Cities should create a road map that factors in feedback from citizens and officials from city departments, recommends the Smart Cities Council. The document should not live in isolation; its proposals must support the city’s larger goals.

The roadmap should include an assessment of the city’s current technological progress and a vision for the future. To make that vision a reality requires detailed project plans, milestones, metrics, and funding considerations.

The plan should be bold in its vision, but it should also be clear, however, in identifying near-term "low-hanging-fruit" projects with a quick return on investment. Early wins such as installing smart lighting or a network of connected surveillance cameras can pave the way for broader initiatives.

Another central consideration for IoT projects is network infrastructure. Many smart city projects require a high-speed internet network.

Prioritize Citizens and Business over Technology

Technology may be at the heart of smart cities projects, but officials launching them must clearly explain how they improve the quality of life for residents and why they make financial sense in the long run. Projects that fail to do this invite opposition—from rival politicians or citizens.

While many city officials clearly understand the potential benefits of a smart city project, it can be difficult to convince others that it is a worthy investment. “This is a very real risk. City officials advocating for smart cities projects risks being labeled ‘tree huggers’ or having unrealistic expectations,” says Hal Good, a procurement expert and IBM futurist.

“You have to be smart about building a business case,” says Vinay Singh, a senior advisor at U.S. Department of State and coauthor of a recently published smart cities guide. Vendors pitching smart cities projects often offer to help cities establish a business case. “But cities should ask the vendor to look holistically as well—across agencies and bureaus and talk about how lifecycle costs span across departments and the scalability of the project. These are large acquisitions we are talking about,” Singh says.

A proven strategy is to begin a smart city initiative with technologies that provide a quick payback. “Smart street lights are an example of this. They are low hanging fruit,” Singh says. “It is a small win that shows you can get traction with people to show that these things work.”

Get the Public Involved

Even well-intentioned city officials can encounter problems by opting for smart city projects when some citizens assume that the city or vendor in question had nefarious intent when installing them.

One common complaint is that smart cities projects rob citizens of their privacy. While this gripe is common for cities installing networks of connected cameras, it can also sabotage other types of projects. Some residents might assume, for instance, that smart meters or sensors that monitor whether trash cans are full are there to spy on them.

“To those of us working in the smart cities realm, we all recognize the enormous potential to do good with big data and sensors, but how do we tap into that potential to benefit the most people?” asks Sarah Isabel Moe, a senior consultant with DNV GL's sustainable buildings and communities team

While there will always be conspiracy theorists, city planners can sidestep many of these problems through citizen engagement. 

First of all, engaging citizens can improve the project, enabling it to meet community needs better, Moe says. “If community members are involved in the project planning, their specific concerns can be addressed and the project shaped to best meet the needs of constituents. Community engagement can yield surprising findings related to specific issues of concern,” she says.

Working with the public also enables city planners to communicate the project’s benefits. “The city can share the overall vision and context for specific smart city projects, to help community members feel more connected and engaged across the city,” Moe says. “Early engagement can reduce resistance and complaints ‘after-the-fact’ by allowing the community to voice concerns and for the city to respond before finalizing investments.”

But smart cities technologies like smart trash cans and smart lights can offer clear financial incentives and other benefits, which have a quick ROI. The San Francisco–based startup Compology, for instance, says that its trash sensors can slash waste collection expenses by up to 40 percent by notifying waste removal trucks when they are ready to be emptied. 

Smart street lights also can have a dramatic return on investment. 

Have a Smart City Data Plan

Cities have long used sensors to help manage traffic. But the scale of sensors made possible by the Internet of Things is unprecedented. “Much of the buzz around smart city technologies is related to ubiquitous sensors, meaning there is a steep learning curve for cities to manage the way they collect, analyze, and communicate all the data coming in the new smart city future,” says DNV GL’s Sarah Isabel Moe. “ How to store the data is another hot topic. Rules around data archives and policies around data sharing need to be upgraded if they are going to accommodate new data analytics.”

Ubiquitous sensors enable city planners to use systems thinking and can focus on holistic measures of quality of life rather than isolated metrics. Cities can move away from one-off solutions and toward a world where they can make better decisions based on sound data, where city departments integrate their capital projects through smart and sustainable city frameworks, Moe says. “‘Learn to love Big Brother,’ was a common joke at the Smart Cities Week conference recently held in Washington D.C.,” Moe says.

The public is also not used to seeing sensors spread throughout the city, which again calls for community engagement to help explain their benefits. “The sensors are here, they are everywhere, and, it is important to place them intentionally with community buy-in and to communicate the data collected by them in a meaningful and empowering way,” Moe says.

Get Buy-In from City Employees

City officials spearheading smart city initiatives also must convince their colleagues why they are important. “You have to make a strong case to the folks that make things churn why this is important to them,” says Vinay Singh. This requires explaining how the project will make their job better how it impacts them. “A common response for many city workers is to say: ‘well, I am not used to doing things that way,” Singh says. Getting around this resistance requires leadership.

There are compelling reasons for smart cities technology. At Smart Cities Week, David Graham, deputy chief operating officer of San Diego pointed out four: aging infrastructure, climate change, security, and the siloed nature of government. All of these reasons can be convincing reasons both city officials as well as citizens to support smart city projects.

Smart Cities Demand New Procurement Guidelines

Many cities around the world need to streamline their procurement process for smart cities projects, says Vinay Singh. It is a different animal than procuring for traditional cities.

Hal Good agrees. Many of the procedures that worked for cities decades ago don’t work for smart cities projects. For instance, many cities only feel comfortable buying goods or services when they put them out to bid in a traditional 'low bid' process. “That typically locks out anybody who has something new and innovative,” Good says.

Other cities operate under antiquated rules where they can only purchase technology that has been on the market for three or more years, which can cause them to ignore all promising new technology in the process.

Some cities focus so much on the cost of the goods they buy that they don’t weigh on the other types of benefits it might have. They buy 'lowest cost' as opposed to 'best value.'  It might cost more, for instance, to time traffic lights for emergency vehicles, but it could also save lives. 

Another pitfall is to create a fixed budget for smart city projects that doesn’t account for inflation in the delay between budget formation and the actual purchase. “The key is not to embed hard static numbers in your city code which may require frequent action by elected officials to change  Put an index in so as inflation goes up, award thresholds and budgeted authorizations follow that index,” Good says.

Breaking Down the Silos

In the industrial space, many companies implementing IoT initiatives struggle to extend them throughout each division of the enterprise. This struggle is perhaps even more challenging for cities, which have numerous departments that act largely autonomously. “If you look at the cities that are succeeding, they are doing a good job at collaboration,” says Vinay Singh. “Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, TX, has a weekly team meeting that brings together the various agencies in the city government to whatever it is that is going on and the impact across departments,” Singh says.

The Right Political Dynamics

Smart cities projects and smart infrastructure are long-term projects that span across political cycles. “Some of the successful ones we have seen are in governments that are either socialist or authoritarian like in China,” Singh says. “This approach has worked in democracies like Australia, where that country has created an independent group for their infrastructure development that isn’t constrained by political cycles.” Having a quasi-governmental body allows the city to manage smart cities projects with a long-term view.

This goes back to the approach in Austin, TX, where city agencies have regular meetings and experience collaborating. Singh says: “You could make the mandate that you want to make the various city agencies work together because a smart city legacy will hold in the future regardless of who is at the top or not.”

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