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Getting your business ready for smart city partnership

Fourth in a series on the role of public-private partnerships in realizing smart, sustainable cities, systems and industries. The first three articles can be found here, here and here.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) can be a powerful organizing vehicle to transform cities, industries and societies into smarter and more sustainable models. Moreover, they provide the opportunity to become a valued partner to the cities and systems most important to you.

As a smart business, you can get ready to collaborate with cities. There are plenty of invitations to play, if you know where to look.

Understanding cities

A city provides an integrative playspace for most forms of human activity. As a potential private partner in a public-private collaboration, a business can begin by familiarizing itself with the complex operational landscape of cities.

Like a multi-system organism, a city’s anatomy includes a set of physical structures, infrastructures and services; a network of living entities that make up its society; and the information that flows among them. Rich in operational domains that are at once discrete and interdependent, a city is home to many complementary and competing subsystems.

As a potential private partner in a public-private collaboration, a business can begin by familiarizing itself with the complex operational landscape of cities.
A "smart" city will seek to integrate these operations where useful, possible and practical, often by creating a nervous system of sensory information and sharing data across operational siloes. In this way, it can take intelligent action to keep the city running smoothly, and deliver a higher quality of life for its citizens and visitors.

The design, evolution and realization of a smart city is inherently a public and private affair. Get into a municipal mindset by reviewing the Smart Cities Readiness Guide, created by the Smart Cities Council to help communities prepare for future initiatives, from creating a vision to developing a roadmap. While the Readiness Guide is intended for mayors, city managers, city planners and their staffs, businesses can use it to better understand cities and their aspirations, opportunities and challenges. It covers the wide range of domains for which a municipality is responsible.

Playing well together

As a potential partner, it’s helpful to arrive with a gracious and interoperable attitude and be prepared to offer accommodation. Typically, multiple digital jurisdictions control the smart city playing field, which can host many new games and players over time. Whether a city pursues a consistent “smart” approach across its operational domains or deploys a loosely connected collection of smart solutions, seamless interoperability is often more aspiration than reality. 

Fortunately, opportunities for interoperability exist. They offer areas to focus strategic and operational alignment. To that end, the Cyber Physical Security (CPS) group at the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) (home also to the Global Cities Team Challenge led by Sokwoo Rhee) has created the IoT-Enabled Smart City Framework. Its objective is to identify "pivotal points of interoperability," or PPI, across an array of smart city architecture models. As explained in the resulting draft document (PDF): "The IES-City framework does not declare PPI but simply reveals them through dispassionate analysis of prominent technologies in use in smart city applications." With at least six smart city models at work in smart cities and more on the way, the PPI initiative finds the key places where solution platforms can cooperate.

The framework also identifies application domains relevant to smart cities. Interoperable practices within a domain allow small industries to emerge, serving up capabilities that truly can empower a city. Interoperable practices across domains can enable a smart city innovation platform to emerge, much like the World Wide Web and the internet created a common innovation platform. This digital landscape is the hyper-connected playspace public and private players operate in — and take for granted — today.

Get to know your city of choice

Ultimately, what matters is getting know the cities you are interested in partnering with. This may be a city where you operate, or a city otherwise important to your business. Approach it as a potential partner with an interest in protecting and enhancing the business environment in which you operate.

First, do a quick check to see if there are any open and advertised invitations from your target city to partner for specific initiatives. Is there an active challenge that your city is calling or responding to? New York City’s NYCx recently ran several challenges on climate action and connectivity while Bloomberg Philanthropies reached out this summer with an American Cities Climate Challenge.

Do a quick check to see if there are any open and advertised invitations from your target city to partner for specific initiatives.
Next, find out how your city or region has set up its playspace. Is there an innovation lab or living laboratory established to invite partnership in specific functional areas of interest? For example, the Technology Association of Oregon (TAO) recently created a public-private Smart Cities and Communities Lab, with the goal of establishing the region as a living laboratory for civic innovation through technology. Skip Newberry, president and CEO of TAO, described "activities include identifying, prioritizing and helping to implement smart city projects, supporting a community of experts in areas such as mobility, resiliency, energy, water, waste, public safety, etc., and advising on policies and programs."

Perhaps a cross-cutting organizing structure is in your city of choice. Is there a "Smart City" arm, à la Envision Charlotte, Envision Utah or KCMO Smart City? Is there a chief technology officer (CTO), or a CIO, where the I stands for either "information” or "innovation"? Perhaps a chief resiliency officer (CRO), a relatively new role nurtured by 100 Resilient Cities, has been established in your target community; resiliency strategies are inherently cross-cutting and require many players and partners.

Find out what your target city most wants to do — and why. Although it may not have begun action just yet, it may have published an action plan around mobility, resiliency, climate change or other areas of concern that needs to operationalize, and that would welcome partners from the private sector.

Urgent needs for partnership

The climate change challenge is upon us, and the call for collective action has grown increasingly urgent. This was outlined in colorful detail at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco earlier this month, even as Mother Nature was shouting loudly again for cities and their partners to hear — in the language of concurrent wildfirestyphoons and hurricanes.

With only two years to secure a path to relative climate security, uncertainty about priorities is quickly dissolving.  Savvy businesses are considering what this means for them and crafting their own climate action plans, some of which will play out in the context of cities.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, where we’ll share findings from the Summit to help you find your firm’s next place to play in this — the world’s new greatest game.

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