In my travels I’m almost constantly asked two questions: What is a smart city and how do we go about that journey? Even answering these two questions can be difficult as it’s a complex subject and it can be easy for a discussion to leave someone feel more confused afterwards, often thanks to the nested interdependencies within a smart city.
With this in mind, I’ve spent some time considering simple analogies that allow people to more easily understand the smart city journey. One of the most helpful analogies is to compare the complex task of building a smart city with that of building a jigsaw puzzle.
To begin with, the picture that you’re building a puzzle of is the strategy or vision for your completed smart city. The choice of picture is critical as it can’t simply be a picture that you like – everyone needs to like the picture. Without buy-in, the finished picture is unlikely to be widely used, so if you want people to use it or help you build it, they need to have a say in selecting it.
You can choose a puzzle size you’re confident about or you can choose to assemble a really large puzzle. If you choose to “go large” do you have the space to build it? This is an important consideration as setting an over ambitious vision larger than the space available can result in incomplete collections of pieces that don’t join together.
Once you have an agreed picture, we begin building the puzzle in the corners and along the edges. For our smart city analogy, this is the foundation. It’s likely not the most attractive or dazzling part of our picture but provides essential infrastructure blocks to build on top of and without these your task is close to impossible or very expensive. Sacrificing or compromising the foundations will most likely lead to a smart city abandonment or failure.
With the foundations built, people will get creative and look for pieces of the picture that stand out or group pieces into colours then build them. In smart city terms, these are the quick wins or projects that excite people and that they can recognise and support. It is easier to assemble smaller segments within your picture then place these completed sections in their approximate locations. For most cities, this is an easier way to progress towards the harder parts and as you do this your bigger picture will begin to emerge, just like in our puzzle.
The journey is always the same: you build your puzzle piece by piece. Your ability to accelerate the completion of the full picture is determined by how much resource you can commit. Regardless of the scale of your means, it’s still absolutely possible to build a beautiful picture that will delight all of your citizens – it will just take longer to realise with less resources or focus. If your community is engaged and bought into the picture they will likely help you build it too.
Where our smart city puzzle analogy gets more complex is that our big picture is actually comprised of many smaller jigsaws within the larger puzzle and this important detail shapes how we procure.
Traditionally cities would have sought one supplier to provide an entire solution (picture) but this is increasingly unrealistic in smart cities. If you can’t buy an off the shelf “small puzzle” that fits your big picture you will need to find suppliers who can build you what you need to seamlessly fit and complete your big picture. A collaborative, open and innovative approach is essential to do this well.
None of the above is possible without the compelling big picture that all of your citizens have bought into. If your picture is only beautiful to a small subset of officials and suppliers, your smart city will be at best compromised, at worst underused and a poor return on investment. Sadly there are a number of recent examples of pictures selected by suppliers and a handful of officials and these should be considered cautionary tales.