What is a Smart City and Do They Have a Chance?

We read a lot about smart cities these days, but like many popular topics there’s a surprising lack of consistency in assigning a meaning to the term.  In fact, only about half the attributes of smart cities that governments and network operators name are recognized by at least two-thirds of the people I talk with.  Many of the things I think are fundamental to smart cities have far less recognition than that.

At a very high level, a “smart city” is one that employs information technology to optimize its own services and assets, and help its occupants (people and businesses) do the same.  The problem with this baseline is that many cities would fit the definition even if they did nothing at all.  Where the problem of meaning and consistency comes in is in figuring out how the baseline could be made into something meaningful.  Some of that problem arises from the usual “eye of the beholder” syndrome we see in tech—all vendors and service providers want to see a definition that fits what they do/sell.  More comes from a lack of a top-down view of the problems and opportunities.

Every city likely employs information technology to run itself; even small businesses rarely can avoid computer use.  Major cities are somewhat like large enterprises, though of course their geographic scope is constrained more.  They use a lot of IT, but in my ongoing surveys of both governmental and private IT, I have noticed that cities are more compartmentalized in their IT, meaning that cities operate a bit more like industrial conglomerates, with IT silos that represent various departments and a smaller central IT process that unites that which has to be united, largely relating to things like employee services, tax collection, and cost management.

I had the opportunity to get some input from city managers (or the equivalent, the COO in effect of city operations) on the topic.  They agree that improving their IT use would improve efficiency and cut costs.  In fact, they cite five specific areas where they thing “smartness” should be considered, with surprising consistency.  They do disagree a bit on the priority and the chances of a significantly positive outcome.

The first area noted, with a slightly larger number of managers citing it than the others, is improved use of analytics and data mining.  Almost every city manager thought that the commercial sector was far ahead of cities in this area.  Most of them think that data mining has the largest potential to improve operations, even more than IoT, and all of them thought it would likely require the least investment.

Why not do it, then?  The managers cite a number of problems.  First, the databases involved are often archaic and proprietary rather than standard structures.  Data mining software would have to be customized to work with them.  Second, the applications and data are often not centralized, so there’s no single place you could go to get at everything.  Third, there are a bewildering number of different regulations regarding the way that municipal data can be used.  Finally, there’s the question of how data mining and analytics could be budgeted.

About half the major metro areas in the US report that they are in the process of modernizing their own application base, and as a collateral benefit this would likely move them to a point where data mining was much easier.  Most managers think that modernization of their apps would erase the technical barriers, but the budget problem remains.  City budgeting is almost always done on a department basis, with the heads jealously guarding their prerogatives.  Getting consensus on spending on a cross-department tool like analytics/data mining would be challenging.

The second smart opportunity cited was self-service portals for residents and local businesses.  City managers say that they’re well behind businesses in offering their “customers” direct online access to things.  Many of the issues I’ve already noted are cited by managers as inhibitors in this opportunity area, but they expressed the greatest concern over the problem of security.  There are specific laws regarding the confidentiality of personal information, which has led to some concerns over whether a portal would open the city to hacking of personal and business information.

This particular opportunity does seem to be moving forward, though.  All of the city manager types I’ve talked with say that they are expanding what is available to their residents and businesses via online portals.  About a third say they’re exploring the use of cloud services to facilitate this, though there are still questions about maintaining data privacy according to local (and state, and Federal) laws.

Opportunity number three was mobile empowerment.  The percentage of the workforce that’s mobile and empowerable in cities isn’t much different from the percentage across commercial businesses (about 19% for cities versus about 24% in enterprises, considering “mobile” to mean that the worker is away from their regular desk/place of operation at least 15% of the time, and “empowerable” meaning the worker has a job that requires information access or generation).  The extent to which empowerment has even begun falls far short of commercial business standards.

There’s a lot of fuzz in the responses to the “where are you with this?” question.  About a quarter of city managers say they have some mobile empowerment strategies in place, most of whom say that it’s a feature of commercial software they use somewhere.  There doesn’t seem to be a broad mission to create mobile front-ends for all applications, and this is likely because of the separation of departments common in city government.  Who pays?

Opportunity number four was improved collaboration and collective decision-making.  This opportunity seemed to be down the list a bit (but remember that there wasn’t an enormous difference in support among the five listed areas), in part because city managers have noted that their departments tend to operate more autonomously and because the narrow geography of cities favors face-to-face meetings.

What seems to be most interesting here is what you could call “consultation” more than “collaboration”.  The implication is that it’s a two-party process, usually invoked by a worker with either a supervisor or an expert in a related area.  The specifics all seem to tie into mobile workers, however, and so this is seen often as related to that category of opportunity too.  Most city managers have seen this as a unified communications task, which is a departure from the view of commercial businesses who see it as relating to the application that’s spawning the questions and needs.  In any event, progress is slow.

The final opportunity was “Internet of Things” or IoT.  Needless to say, there was a lot of interest in this, but many city managers believe that the specific applications of, benefits from, and cost for implementation of IoT are all too vague at this point.  They can see some credible “things” that could be connected to generate a benefit (online meter readings are already at least in testing in some areas, for example), but areas like traffic sensors and computer control of traffic signals, a favorite media topic, seems to pose a lot of cost and risk and it’s been difficult to quantify the rewards.

Nobody wants to say that they’re not doing IoT, whether they’re in city government or business.  However, if you try to pin down specifics in both areas, what you find is some special projects that in the minds of many might not be “IoT” at all.  For example, is a local RFID or Bluetooth meter reading mechanism “IoT”?  Making an entire city intelligent by adding sensors on everything that can be measured and controllers on everything that can be tweaked, seems to be a long-term interest but not a near-term priority.

The sum of my discussions is clear; there’s not much progress in smartening cities overall, unless we pull back on our notions of what a smart city really has and does.  The biggest problem, which city managers are understandably reluctant to discuss, is the politics of funding.  Capital projects of any magnitude pose a political risk, and the more money that’s involved and the more city departments that are impacted, the more likely it is that the idea will get a few kisses blown at it, and passed on for later discussion.

Vendor initiatives can help accelerate things, according to city managers, but for larger cities there’s doubt that these initiatives could result in even a single element of smart-city modernization, just one of our five opportunities.  Could they address them all?  Not without considerable political and financial support from the cities themselves, meaning the governing, elected, officials.  That, they think, isn’t likely to develop as long as the smart-city concept is hot in the tech space and not elsewhere.  Public support means publicity on a broader scale.

Whether the “smart cities” hype helps develop support is an area where city managers are fairly evenly split.  They say that publicity can help develop public interest and internal support for change, but also that it can raise expectations and set unrealistic targets.  Nearly all of them say that there has been more discussion since the concept of smart cities started getting publicity, but nearly all say that progress is still limited.

The good news is that all five of the opportunity areas get support from all the city managers I’ve talked with.  There is interest here, and perhaps even the beginning of a willingness to proceed.  What’s objectively lacking is the benefit case.  Sound familiar?