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How do you know if your city is smart?

Smart City - What? and How?

Perhaps the first clue you might have on entering a smart city is being stopped at what looks like a tollbooth (and of course the smart city would not have these because of electronic toll collection) and being asked to complete a short IQ test before you can gain entry to the smart city. It’s always been my concern that I might not be smart enough to live in a really smart city. Just kidding!

In this article we will do some waterskiing over the entire body of water that represents a smart city. We will describe the essential elements and then move on to outline an approach towards a smart city. You may think of a smart city is constructed from a series of projects, but our view is much different. We believe that value in terms of safety, efficiency and user experience is delivered by services and that services are enabled by projects and programs. Therefore if we are going to market the benefits of a smart city we must focus on the services first as a way of describing what we mean by a smart city, then we can move on to talk about how we’re going to achieve it through the use of projects and programs to deliver services.

Smart cities have become a very important topic around the globe, partly because technologies are now available to us and perhaps partly because for the first time in the history of the world more people live in cities than anywhere else on the planet. All smart cities term has been bandied about and has become what the Gartner Group would refer to as a hype term.

So the intent of this article is to dispel some of the missed surrounding the definition of a smart city and provide some tangible proof that smart cities are real and of considerable potential value to those inhabiting the city and those responsible for planning and operating services in the city. There are a few different perspectives to be considered when evaluating the smartness of the city.

What is a smart city

Let’s start with a smart city framework. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology media Lab a smart city consists of the following elements:

  1. Urban analytics and modeling

  2. Incentives and governance

  3. Places of living and work

  4. Electronic and social networks

  5. Energy networks

  6. Mobility networks

Note that this defines a smart city is much more than transportation or mobility networks, so let’s examine each of these in turn before focusing on transportation.

Urban analytics and modeling

a smart city will capture huge volumes of data, some of which can be regarded as traditional data that city planners and service providers already collect. Some of it will be nontraditional data that we haven’t yet considered for use in urban analytics and modeling. A smart city will build a data lake that retains as many pieces of data as possible. The new approach to data signs is to capture all data regardless of perceived value, let it combine and recombine in a data lake, then make use of a discovery platform to let the data speak. After all, how do you know what data is useful and what data is not until you see the end result. It is highly likely that a piece of data that you considered to be useless will combine in the data lake with other data to reveal insights and patterns that you had not previously understood.

Let’s be clear that this data lake will not be a sinkhole into which data enters and disappears forever, rather it will be a very large retention pond that keeps all data and allows none to leave. The crashing cost of data storage and manipulation makes this approach entirely feasible and opens up some amazing possibilities for the use of analytics on the data lake. A smart city will be data hungry and not data averse. His hunger will be driven by a deep understanding of the analytical possibilities that data enables and insights into how things work that are only possible through good data. A smart city will also take a scientific approach to the planning, delivery, monitoring and management of its services.

Incentives and governance.

There would be no point in a smart city having world-class services implemented through the use of projects and programs if such services were not delivered through a skillful combination of strong government and appropriate private sector involvement. We can describe a smart city in terms of service evolution (and we will do so later) but the evolution and maturity of governing structures is another dimension that cannot be ignored.

Irom a government perspective the smart city will utilize technology supported government services within incentive frameworks or business models that optimally utilize the private sector. In our opinion smart city government organization will be shaped by analytics and the performance of service delivery will be managed also through the use of analytics. Instead of saying to a city official “your job is to run this service” a smart city will say “your job is to achieve the following performance objectives with respect to this service”. This will undoubtedly require cooperation across current organizational lines.

Places of living and work

In a smart city the place you live in could also be your workplace. In a smart city both locations will be supported through the use of advanced technology. These technologies will provide information access, heating, cooling and water as utilities. Using a hybrid combination of wired and wireless devices the inhabitant of a smart city will have unparalleled access to information and the ability to communicate across multiple channels with others inside and outside of the city.

Electronic and social networks

We have a ready experienced the social impact of electronic and social networks in the form of Facebook, twitter and others. A smart city will extend and expand this initial impact to create channels through which ideas can be shared and concepts can be communicated. It is expected that these networks will support and enable many facets of life in a smart city including business, leisure, education and shopping among others.

Energy networks

A smart city will utilize smart energy grid technologies to optimize the delivery of energy to the right place at the right time. Energy production will be a hybrid of national grid, city and local generating possibilities. The production and distribution of energy will be managed through the use of advanced technology.

Mobility networks

As discussed earlier, we will focus on mobility networks and transportation within a smart city in order to illustrate a model approach. We believe that the principles of the model approach are applicable to the other 5 areas or elements and we will address these in future publications.

How to progress towards a smart city

Of course having created an initial definition of a smart city we couldn’t leave it at that. We had to move on and build on the definition to give you at least some outline ideas on how to achieve a smart city or make progress towards

A proposed approach to building the smart city we have defined above can be summarized as follows:

  1. Establish Objectives

  2. Evaluate Current Situation

  3. Develop Roadmap for Service Evolution and Enablers

  4. Create Investment Program Based on Service Evolution

  5. Implement Investment Program

  6. Monitor and Manage Results

  7. Revise Roadmap If Necessary

Establish Objectives

At a minimum these would include accessibility, sustainability, smart land use, mobility, desirability. We are pretty sure that this list should be longer but the point is that you start off by defining and agreeing the objective. This is the endpoint to which the roadmap will take you starting from today’s situation

Evaluate Current Situation

The current situation within your city can be measured by comparing the availability of services to the services required to establish and attain the objectives. In order to gain sufficient resolution in this checklist approach each service would be measured in terms of temporal, spatial and quality levels.

Develop Roadmap for Service Evolution and Enablers

At this point we recognize that there are 2 different types of activities. There are projects that result in direct services that will deliver value and benefits and that are projects that enablers that do not directly contribute but are required for the services to perform effectively. The roadmap would show service Evolution across the smart city in terms of temporal spatial and quality levels and also developed by project and program specifications for the enablers required to support the services. Of course it will be essential for the service Evolution and the implementation of the enablers to be synchronized carefully.

Create Investment Program Based on Service Evolution

In order to deliver services and enablers it will be necessary create project descriptions and cluster them together into programs that can be scheduled into a cost feasible investment program

Implement Investment Program

We would suggest that the implementation of the investment program take a rapid evolutionary development approach. This would consist of taking a look at the whole service framework and then selecting something that can be deployed within about 9 months that you believe will be required to matter what happens. Based on the experience gained in deploying this 1st project, the service framework is updated. This is also the opportunity to incorporate any advances in technology. Therefore the service framework and the investment program in which is based is updated on a rolling nine-month program.

Monitor and Manage Results

Monitoring and management of the results obtained to be a continuous process focused on formative and summative evaluation. Formative evaluation involves the provision of short-term feedback to guide the implementation, while summative evaluation provides longer-term feedback used to guide later stages of the overall program.

Revise Roadmap If Necessary

Based on the results of the monitoring and management activities the roadmap and the implementation program would be revised accordingly

Fine-tune organizational arrangements to support the emerging smart city

As discussed earlier we would expect the shape of the organization to be influenced by data analytics which are woven into the job descriptions and job objectives of key players.

Bob McQueen & Associates


Officers in Orlando, USA, and Perpignan, France

©2016 by Bob McQueen and Associates