Smart Cities or Clever Cities?

City managers have seen this movie before…

Archaeologists still argue where the first smart city was built and what the evidence was—a grid pattern, street signs or ladders to higher floors pulled up in the face of attack. In the United States, the first Stop sign was posted in Detroit, the city responsible for the introduction of cars, and this was where the first three-color traffic signal appeared. 

Today Smart Cities—with or without IoT—are promoted like the Stop signs of the future. All six continents are falling prey. Smart Cities for economic development, for citizen engagement. Smart Cities and 5G. Yet cities are the least funded layers of government while Smart Cities need funds to get new infrastructure, even virtual, installed. And funds to keep new smart apps going whether on their own or by outsourcing.

We saw this with attempts to deploy wireless broadband grids in the U.S. a decade ago. The plans involved four talking points.  1. Free wireless broadband in public places will help cities retain upwardly mobile workers and residents.  2. It will provide access for the poor.  3. It will allow cities to do e-Government.  4. It will support homeland security, creating a common network for police, fire and medical emergency forces (a stumbling block in responding to 9/11).

Technology providers were ready to go. But budgets were not found, technical issues muddied the waters, and operators opposed the plan (Plan A at least), which called for the new networks to be municipally owned. Few wireless broadband grids saw the light of day.

Now we see an even wider approach. Smart metering, smart lighting, smart climate control, smart public safety, on and on. All good ideas but…

So how do cities and their stakeholders get clever? For the cities the first step is to calibrate ambitions—not ask that Smart City projects fulfill four major goals, just one or two. The second is to start with projects that fit within budgets and then seek outside funding or launch Public Private Partnerships once proof of concept and sound management are in place. Plus avoid moves that spark years of legal and institutional challenges.

For technology providers we suggest less wow-look-what-we-can-do in Singapore, Sydney and Dubai, the Smart City poster children, and more of here’s how this smart app will help your city collect taxes, reduce procurement costs, or attract voters to the next election. Vendors need to learn city practices, procedures and, yes, politics. They need to recognize that some “smarts” (e.g. smart parking meters or apps to locate buses or empty parking spaces) can be adopted quickly. Others will take longer than an election cycle to move forward.

For operators, the natural instinct is to oppose anything they do not offer. They also worry if they do offer something new and different like Smart City services, it will run into opposition from utilities, home security firms, and other interests. Yet operators have managed to provide free WiFi and install “I-Nets” to connect city offices and schools. They should target mutually beneficial opportunities, not just re-play the Smart Cities movie on 4K screens.

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