Mar 09 2012

Shaping a Smart-City Strategy

Learn what smart cities have in common and how to build on existing infrastructure.

Cities must differentiate themselves to attract investment and productive residents. This coupled with financial constraints, fast-growing populations and aging infrastructures drive investment in smart-city solutions.

IDC Government Insights believes smart cities are the cities of the future and offer more attractive places to live and invest. Smart cities more efficiently utilize their municipal infrastructure, human resources and massive volumes of collected data to improve services. Benefits range from reduced traffic congestion and on-time public transportation to faster and more responsive emergency and public-safety services. Cities achieve this by modernizing their IT systems or tapping their existing IT infrastructure and proactively engaging with residents.

There’s clearly momentum for smart-city solutions, especially in the areas of public safety, transportation and utilities, but there are many definitions of what it means to be “smart” and various methodologies for assessing, ranking and benchmarking cities.

Varying definitions of what constitutes a smart city and the complexity of smart solutions make it difficult for city leaders to know where to begin in their smart-city planning. This lack of understanding inhibits necessary steps CIOs and others must take in order to identify the highest priority initiatives for their cities and actually begin to implement solutions.

Failure to start the smart-city journey now will leave these cities behind in terms of attractiveness to investors and residents. There are several key questions local government leaders should ask:

  • What makes a smart city different from or similar to my city?
  • What smart-city use cases can I turn to? What are similar cities doing successfully?
  • How can my city begin to plan for and execute a smart-city strategy?  What are the first steps we should take?
  • What are the priority problem areas in my city? 
  • What are the key processes and technologies in a smart city, and how can my city begin or continue on our smart-city journey?

Identifying key smart technologies and examples of successful implementations will guide the first steps in developing a smart city. Here are some key elements of smart-city solutions:

  • Data is gathered and aggregated in real time or near real time from a variety of devices (such as sensors) and directly from citizens via crowdsourcing and social media.
  • Data and information are communicated and transported in real time via pervasive broadband networks.
  • Software and services are used to process, cleanse, consolidate and understand collected data. New data is integrated with historical data sets.
  • Trends are discovered and outcomes are predicted from the information using business intelligence and analytics software.
  • Information is disseminated in an automated way.
  • Processes are in place to act on information and execute optimal responses.
  • Processes are in place to measure outcomes.
  • Optimal responses to analyzed information lead to economically and environmentally sustainable urban development and a higher quality of life for citizens.

Most cities already have invested in component parts that can support an overall smart-city strategy. Others may begin their smart journey with a few technology purchases such as a license plate reader or traffic camera, and some will start with a full-scale domain solution. Whatever the path, city planners and administrators need to start looking at smart deployments in similar cities and put smart projects on their technology roadmap. 

Ultimately, I see successful smart cities entering a positive feedback loop. As these cities invest and develop smart solutions, they will generate buzz and interest as their citizens and local businesses are more engaged and satisfied, and city revenues are used more effectively. As a result, these cities will attract more tax-generating residents and businesses. This, in turn, will provide these cities with more revenues to invest in more smart solutions. 

Initial Steps

Here are some actions to take to build a smart city:

  • Draft an explicit smart-city mission statement. To become a smart city, a city must have an explicit smart-city mission statement that describes sustainable urban development and specific citizen quality of life issues. The general characteristics of an overarching smart-city mission should include broad goals related to sustainable economic development, carbon emission reductions, cross-department collaboration, increased engagement with citizens and a higher quality of life for residents. 
  • Specific city domains should make domain-specific goals. Groups such as the Department of Transportation or the Office of Public Safety, for example, should have mission statements with specific goals regarding more sustainable and livable urban environments and improved services. Examples of goals could be use of smart technologies to reduce crime, carbon emissions, benefits fraud, or traffic congestion.
  • Define your city's smart-city investment strategy by determining priority areas for smart solutions. Many cities already know their problem areas and challenges, but a formal assessment of challenges and opportunities specifically pertaining to smart-city goals is an important first step. Benchmarking specific city metrics against similar-sized cities that are facing similar issues can help to pinpoint the issues. Understanding successful implementations in other cities will help identify specific technology solutions as well as provide lists of potential vendors and partners. Looking to other cities can also help determine investment strategies and avenues for public-private partnerships.

Some municipalities may need outside guidance for defining their smart-city priorities. Established manufacturers and service providers can assist in those efforts.


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