Jun 08 2020

How Smart City Leaders Can Get Back to Basics and Use Data Effectively

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing city governments to become more data-driven and practical.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, there was recognition that smart cities needed to return to basics and focus less on flashy technological displays and more on solutions that actually helped citizens. Now that the pandemic decimated local tax revenues, city budgets are under stress and IT investments may be curtailed. 

According to the 2020 State of City and County IT National Survey, conducted in early 2020 by the Public Technology Institute, just 10 percent of respondents believe “smart” initiatives are being embraced with enthusiasm by agency leaders.

“There are budget concerns, but there’s really a governance concern,” Alan Shark, PTI’s executive director, tells StateScoop. “Can we organize ourselves in a way that will really fulfill the promise of what this could look like, which is a very different holistic approach toward information, information analytics and processing.”

As both political and IT city leaders determine the path forward for their communities, the need for decisions to be driven by data will grow. City governments will need to make logical decisions that benefit their residents and ensure services are delivered as efficiently as possible to maximize the return on investments in both technology and services.

How to Rethink the Smart City Paradigm

Hype around emerging technologies such as blockchain and 5G seems misplaced at a time when many city governments are being forced to contemplate major budget cuts and are working to provide basic services to residents following months-long lockdowns that have only recently started to lift. 

As cities contemplate how to move forward with smart projects, it will be important for leaders to think holistically about their approach and make those decisions based on data and the needs of residents. 

“I think [CIOs] are already doing a lot of smart applications, but if they don’t have the leadership from the top, it’s very hard for a CIO to say, ‘You know what? I want to make a smart city.’ That requires a mayor or county executive to really push that kind of agenda,” Shark says. “There’s not really a universal definition [of a smart city] that people hang their hat on.”

Luke Stowe, CIO and interim director of administrative services for Evanston, Ill., argues for cities to produce solutions that are practical, inclusive and user centric. 

“The smartest cities (and others) are making decisions based on data, evidence and insights,” he writes in Government Technology. “The most intelligent cities are breaking down silos through cross-collaboration, automation and APIs. These cities are putting the citizen experience first with a focus on those with the greatest need.”

Susan O’Connor, global director for public sector industry marketing at Oracle, argues that to use data effectively, cities need to more directly engage with residents concerning how cities are using technology to improve residents’ lives. “It’s obviously a challenge but a huge opportunity for city leaders to begin doing a better job communicating,” O’Connor tells IoT World Today

MORE FROM STATETECH: Discover how Chattanooga, Tenn., is using connectivity to enhance public safety.

The Way Forward for Smart Cities

The way ahead for smart cities is for civic and IT leaders to emphasize solutions that are both practical and data-driven, and not pushed by technology vendors or hype. Ultimately, they need to demonstrate real value for residents. 

One example is an artificial intelligence-driven traffic-signaling system Pittsburgh recently deployed. The AI software detects vehicle traffic and produces a predictive model that generates a signal timing plan in real time, as GovTech reports.

“For the initial 50-intersection project, the system reduced travel time by 25 percent, braking by 30 percent and idling by more than 40 percent,” the publication notes. However, while drivers were happy, pedestrians felt left out. So, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University “responded by tweaking the system to minimize wait time for pedestrians at lights.”

Such a solution is practical, solves real-world pain points for residents, takes their input into account and does not put technology at the center of the deployment; it is simply a means to an end and will be invisible to residents. 

“Smart city projects are becoming less fantastical, less sci-fi type and much more practical,” Bob Bennett, founder and principal of B Squared Civic Solutions and former chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo., tells GovTech.

Cities from Los Angeles to Cincinnati are using data to monitor and respond to the pandemic itself, to protect and support residents and make the public health response more effective. 

Although released in 2018, the McKinsey Global Institute’s, “Smart Cities: Digital Solutions for a More Livable Future” report seems prophetic about the changing nature of smart cities and what is required of civic leaders during this trying time:

After a decade of trial and error, municipal leaders are realizing that smart city strategies start with people, not technology. “Smartness” is not just installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure or streamlining city operations. It is about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.

Quality of life is top of mind for residents of cities big and small as the pandemic continues, economic activity restarts in a limited fashion and residents assess how to live their lives in an altered world. It would be useful — and smart — for city leaders to recognize this and plan IT investments accordingly.

This article is part of StateTech's CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.

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