How 12 cities are charting a course to being truly "smart"

How 12 cities are charting a course to being truly "smart"

smart cities USDN San Francisco, Boston, Houston, Chicago
Urban Sustainability Directors Network
A new set of guidelines by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network aims to make sense of the onslaught of smart city strategies.

This article is the first in a series exploring the needs of municipalities in the smart cities marketplace.

City governments everywhere are experiencing disruption linked to the explosive growth of smart city technologies and Big Data.

Instead of shying away from this period of change, government staffers in a number of locations are embracing digital strategies designed to accelerate city-wide sustainability priorities. 

This month, for instance, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a symposium exploring the roles of technology, innovation and data to address interconnected climate and health issues. Heeding President Barack Obama’s call to action, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) released an in-depth guide “Getting Smart About Smart Cities” for North American cities.

The guide is part of broader efforts of USDN, along with partners Nutter Consulting, the Institute of Sustainable Communities (ISC) and the city of Houston, to forge better partnerships between cities and the tech companies that create smart and sustainable city solutions.

The goal of the new smart cities guide: going beyond the hype to explore the vital and transformative role that innovation and technology can play in making our cities greener and healthier.

Thinking bigger

One key is demonstrating how smart city technology can help tackle cities’ most pressing sustainability challenges with digital and data tools.

If implemented correctly, the benefits of smart city approaches can go way beyond quickly finding a parking space or catching a ride.

According to one recent forecast, smart city technology has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9.1 gigatons in the next five years.

The new USDN guide investigates how smart city solutions that use information communications technology (ICT) and Big Data to improve quality of life for citizens also can increase resilience and grow cities’ triple bottom line outcomes.

From monitoring energy usage to crowdsourcing better urban design through engagement apps, being smart is really about informed decision making for citizens and policymakers alike.

With global sea levels and temperatures rising at a time when we have more people in our cities than ever, the stakes are enormous. And city governments have the difficult task of enabling that transition in ways that benefit all.  

The guide showcases smart city strategies specifically intended to advance climate and sustainability goals and was the result of the first USDN Smart Cities Summit with 12 USDN member cities: Boston; Boulder, Colo.; Burlington, Vt.; Chicago; Columbia, Mo.; Houston; Palo Alto, Calif.; Raleigh, N.C.; San Francisco; Seattle; Vancouver, B.C.; and Washington, D.C.

Designed to help cities set their own smart city agendas, the summit brought together sustainability directors, IT directors and chief innovation officers for the first time. Through the summit, participants identified seven key strategies for smart city projects that advance sustainability goals.

The resulting strategies, published in the guide, center on three main themes: putting people first; creating innovation-rich cultures; and building new capacities.

1. Put people first

Rather than top-down, technologically driven, automated cities (what the guide calls Smart Cities 1.0), Smart Cities need bottom-up, citizen-led approaches that put people’s experience in an urban environment, not technology, at the center.

Smart City 2.0, people-first strategies include: connecting government departments through digital strategies that bridge existing city silos and chart a source for technology integration; engaging citizens by soliciting feedback through decision-making apps as well as offline tools about their needs; prioritizing data privacy to build trust among the citizenry.

2. Create an innovation-rich culture

The most consistent process for innovations starts in scalable, manageable, high-leverage bite-sizes. Cities should encourage a sustainability marketplace that seeks out these innovation sweet spots.

Two key innovation strategies include: mastering the art of innovation and rapid adoption of new technology and data tools through hiring chief innovation officers, sponsoring hackathons and embracing the principle of “fail fast” during testing; reinventing innovation-friendly procurement systems that are nimble and allows for real-world experiments.

3. Build new capacities for smart cities

Cities find themselves competing with the tech industry to recruit tech-savvy staff, leading municipalities large and small to positioning jobs in local government as key enablers of the next generation of sustainable, urban environments.

Two key strategies for building new capacities for smart cities include: developing partnerships with the tech sector through competitions and no-cost partnerships to supplement their capacity; embracing the changing role of IT from purely tactical in nature to more integrated and strategic.

Closing the hype gap

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.

To keep forward momentum going, the USDN project group is also conducting a sector scan and investigating the establishment of a smart city innovation lab to bridge the public and private sectors.

Another guide is also in the works that will focus on best practices for adopting specific technologies across all sustainability sectors in the smart city ecosystem.

It’s clear that with investments such as the one made by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg — a $42 million effort to help cities use data to drive decision making — the timing is right for cities, tech companies and others to work together to integrate technology and data into our daily lives.

It’ll take all of us to make Smart Cities 2.0 a reality where our citizens are the biggest beneficiaries of this change.