Inconvenient truths or misaligned objectives? Can we afford for smart cities to fail?

For all my positivity about smart cities and benefits they can bring (for example,Urban Efficiency), I think it’s just as important to talk about some of the criticisms they receive too.

As someone who spends their life working to bring the many benefits of smart city projects to cities around the world and who passionately believes that this is a fundamentally important evolution of urban civilization, it can also be a challenging and difficult journey.

Part of the challenge comes from the difference between the ways in which businesses and city governments go about serving their customers. For example, in business, we segment based around the types of customer we feel are best matched or disposed towards our products. Then we focus our marketing, sales, and support efforts around these segments.

However in government, we can’t do that. We need to look for solutions that help to make life better for everyone – meaning that the whole population is the segment. In the private sector, the objective is profit and results are measured accordingly. In the public sector, specific outcomes are the goal, and these may not necessarily be measured in financial terms, such as for example improving quality of life.

Add to that the fact that many of the world’s most successful businesses are led from the top down – senior management sets the tone and direction of the company, while staff further down the organisational ladder are tasked with delivering the results. By contrast, in the public sector change and projects often emanate from grass roots level – a bottom up approach which can begin with citizens.

Then there’s the question of who pays. What we’re looking to do is ensure cities utilize resources in a way that provides enough for all to enjoy a sustainable and affordable high quality of life. I recently heard the sentiment expressed that quality of life is not a financeable proposition. Yet, if cities and countries are to succeed, they will need to attract talent and therefore they will have to be attractive places to live. And do so in a global marketplace.

Joining together seemingly diametrically opposed working styles and objectives in a smart city project can present a challenge that absolutely demands a different approach to collaboration and problem solving. This can be uncomfortable and difficult – well out of our comfort zone possibly – even before we start to consider technological solutions.

There are other issues that can make achieving smart city goals difficult. Rate of change is a factor which is particularly relevant to technological evolution. The ubiquitous and disruptive smart phone continues to make waves in terms of how society works as well as how it can be incorporated into public services. For hundreds of years, cities have been run on paper and information has been stored in specific ways with rules about who has access to what.

Today, with smart phones in nearly every pocket, there is a major change going on about how we can open up engagement and data sources to give citizens fast, convenient and transparent ways of interacting with government and/ or city services.

This acceleration is also being driven by demographic changes as the young tend to be more confident users of technology than older people. This generational “disconnect” can sometimes be seen in the choices made about the way services are implemented within cities or governments. Many authorities are still struggling to make the move to a digital future, and even choosing where to begin can be complex.

Part of the roadblock is understanding and harnessing the value and potential power of data, both at a general population level and in terms of access and transparency for the individual citizen. In many places there is a distrust of government by citizens, as well as worries about privacy and data sharing. What people will casually post on Facebook or other social media platforms, they can sometimes be reluctant to share with more official sources. However, more transparent approaches to data can significantly improve this situation and over time allay concerns.

Of course big data isn’t easy either, finding the “right” data or interpreting it for maximum benefit is also challenging. This is being reflected by the fact that there are a range of start-up companies offering visualization tools to help find insights in big data and this work in time may make a big difference in understanding the lessons which data can teach.

However for each of these and the many other pitfalls into which smart city projects could fall, there are solutions and ways forward. One simple example is that we can start the process by choosing sub-projects within a bigger vision to begin with. Breaking complex transformational journeys into smaller well defined pieces is a good way to create achievable projects that push through some of the barriers outlined above. These can provide a “beachhead” towards a smart future as they go about solving problems and delivering value. Singapore, for example, has embarked on just such a staged approach to its transformation to a smart city.

For all of the blog posts I’ll write about how fantastic I believe smart city transformations are, I will continue to talk about the challenges of such transformations too, as I believe it’s important to recognize them if we’re going to be effective in solving them. If there are issues that you’re concerned about regarding smart cities, please leave me a comment below and between us, let’s open up the debate in future posts.

Thanks for reading.

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