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2016 Smarter Cities Conference – Disruptions Feed Smarter Initiatives

Ron Exler Research Alerts

What is Happening?

The future of cities is in improving connections of many types, including those using technology. But technologies enter cities at an accelerated pace beyond their existing abilities to consider, plan, procure, and digest the innovations. So, many cities – and therefore citizens and businesses too – face a big gap between needs and capabilities.

Many in government see Smarter Cities as part of the solutions to their challenges. Many associate “smarter” with new and connected technologies that collect, share, and analyze data to improve services. We participated in the second annual Smart Cities Week 2016 conference in Washington D.C. recently, and through the presenters, and talking with exhibitors and attendees, we found significant differences – and advancements – from last year.

Last year’s reflection on the conference was that the shape of Smart Cities points to the shape of future, interconnectivity-reliant, interaction-driven IT. This year the discussion shifted focus from technology to adequate funding and modern operational models that underlie successful innovation projects.

The conference reinforced the idea that “smarter” goes well beyond technologies to improving the connections between city departments, between cities and other levels of government, between cities and citizens, and between cities and businesses. “Smarter” extends to the relationships between cities and their suppliers.

Why is it Happening?

Cities face many disruptions, both existing and potential – civil unrest, terrorism, climate change, pollution, economic downturn, and infrastructure dilapidation. While the tagline for the recent Smart Cities Week 2016 conference was, “Shape your city’s future,” the common underlying thread throughout was, “We have to talk.” Speakers and participants alike were concerned about the lack of communication – not only between different levels of government, but between business and government, governments and citizens, and even between city departments. At the same time, innovative technologies promise to reinvent those connections, while also improving transportation, sustainability, and overall quality of life.

So considering the communications challenges between people, how does a city – let alone a region or country – embrace technologies and practices needed to fulfill the promise of Smarter Cities? In some places, such as Dubai, top government officials demand action through edict. In other places, such as the U.S. and India, monetary incentives such as federal grants motivate.

In the U.S., there is a sense that there’s not been much innovation in the transportation and utilities infrastructures in 60 years. So there’s much excitement for the potential improvements – from things such as autonomous vehicles and sensor-based asset monitoring. But accompanying the excitement is a concern for unintended consequences of the innovations on existing services, infrastructures, and even organizations. Such consequences could include loss of jobs, insecure data streams, changes in vehicle ownership, movements to or away from cities, modifications of existing roadways, and inequitable access to innovations.

In Europe, the key drivers for Smarter Cities are money, innovation, and sustainability. From the European Commission down through its nation states, there’s strong reflection of the drivers. In the AsiaPac region, parts are starting from scratch with little or no legacy infrastructure and scarce resources, which create both challenges and opportunities. smart city projects being undertaken in the middle East region as there is some traction for the same in the region.

In the Middle East, there’s the Smart Dubai initiative with an aggressive end goal to measure and create happiness. Arab cities also hold an active annual conference on its fifth year. Tel Aviv, Israel uses a bottom-up approach toward its Smart City project, focusing its efforts on direct resident-oriented services rather than expensive, large-scale infrastructure.

Net Impact

For all the innovative technologies becoming available for cities, what’s most critical is collaboration and communication with all stakeholders. Legacy practices such as common government procurement simply can’t support the types of new initiatives cities must undertake. If governments can improve the ways they operate internally and externally to sanely embrace innovative approaches, that would be a more significant innovation than any technology. And such changes would help providers.

Whether they work in cities, sell products and services to governments, or have employees living in them, business leaders need to participate in Smarter Cities initiatives and the inevitable changes sprouting up around them. People and process challenges overshadow technology complexities. Smart Cities are complex and political.

One primary obstacle to success is funding. Western nations recently went through a significant economic downturn, and cities are not investing as much in infrastructure. But in the U.S., the White House recently announced $80 million in new Federal investment in the White House Smart Cities Initiative for 70 participating cities. In the Middle East, India, and Asia, there’s more activity primarily because national governments are providing “seed funding” but also because lending institutions are quick to follow with financial support. In India, the government designated 100 cities to become smarter and is funding them accordingly.

Funding sources aside, local governments need approvals for deployments. Sometimes these approvals go through permitting channels or other departments with people who lack the needed technical expertise. So those driving Smarter Cities initiatives will need to assess their business models first, and make them smarter. That might mean consolidation of departments, as was done in the State of Illinois for IT to streamline procurement. Then adding technologies can align with the future direction.

Active participation of enterprises and providers is essential – the interconnected, interactive future of cities depends on a broad range of partnerships, including those between governments, citizens, academia, and industry.

Finally, leadership is critical in making Smarter Cities projects successful, with a clear vision and support with resources. But that leadership will certainly not come from IT – it will originate at the top levels of government and continue through leadership at various levels and from business leaders.

This Research Alert was originally published by ISG Insights, our ongoing globally-focused premium subscription research service. To learn more about ISG Insights, go to where you can register for a Research ID that will provide access to some of our complementary content.

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