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Technology Is Almost Irrelevant for Smart Cities To Succeed

By Andrea Di Maio | August 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

smart government

Yesterday and earlier today I had two quite interesting and revealing conversation on the overhyped theme of smart cities.

The first one was about how to determine a set of criteria, toolkits, frameworks and so forth to advise cities about how to build a roadmap and self-assess with respect to “smartness” objectives. The second was about the role of smart cities in a broader European competitiveness discussion.

In both cases, the lion’s share in people’s mind is taken by technologies. What about geolocation? What about big data, next-generation analytics and the Internet of things? What about in-memory computing, collaboration platforms, advance visualization techniques? There is clearly a plethora of vendors who have developed products, services and solutions that can contribute or complement. In the mind of policy-makers, both at the local and at the national and international level, smart cities have replaced e-government as the new buzz where technology meets public service, quality of life, economic development and the likes.

However technology is mostly irrelevant unless policy-makes, city managers, heads of department and city CIOs get the fundamentals right.

Gartner’s working definition of smart city, as from our recently published Hype Cycle for Smart City Technologies and Solutions (login required) is

an urbanized area where multiple public and private sectors cooperate to achieve sustainable outcomes through the analysis of contextual information exchanged between themselves. The sectors could include hospitals or emergency services or finance and so on. The interaction between sector-specific and intra-sector information flows results in more resource-efficient cities that enable more sustainable citizen services and more knowledge transfer between sectors.

What really matters is how different sectors (not just government) cooperate and,how they can exchange meaningful information. Of course there is technology involved, but that’s not enough to make cities smart. Cooperation requires solid governance and a roadmap that is respectful of (1) the different – and potential diverging – business objectives and timeframes of different stakeholders involved and (2) the inevitable resource constraints that affect most urban areas.

Actually many people still associate smart cities to environmental sustainability and carbon footprint reduction, but the truth is that the main challenge going forward is financial sustainability and the ability to deal with an increasingly turbulent and uncertain future.

Of course there are cases where the smart city in a greenfield. Some of the brand new cities being planned and built in Asia, or the urban areas built to host sporting and other major events, have both significant budgets allocated and a governance model in place that supports a holistic development.

However the vast majority of cities that need to become smart are developed in a brownfield environment. So there are major constraints as far as the physical infrastructure, the availability of budgets and how flexibly or cooperatively they can be used, the entrenched governance processes and the different ways in which city governments provide different services.

In some cities most public services are entirely operated by the city government: there are  government-owned energy companies, transportation companies, water management companies, telcos,  or they are even part of the city government itself. In other cases, city government is just a payer or a supervisor of services provided by external service providers.

In either case, the roadmap to make – say – transportation smarter in conjunction with public safety is very different.

If the city government owns both, it can ideally establish a common program or a common enterprise architecture or a common interoperability framework that both domains (transportation and public safety) will apply when cooperating on their smart objectives.

If the city owns only one of the services and outsources the other, the cooperation must be built through a more careful negotiation process, where vendor management and governance play a much greater role.

So, while technologies that can be applied to capture, process, exchange information, to control sensors and actuators, to analyze and visualize performances are pretty much the same around the world, the roles that city governments play in each and every one of the domains that must cooperate to make the city smart vary a lot. Early focus on how these roles can contribute to help or hinder smart city objectives is far more important than looking at technologies and vendors.

Another fallacy about smart cities is that the city governance model must be reinvented to make it smart. While this is true in theory, the real question is whether this is possible or plausible within a reasonable timeframe. Army of consultants can come up with best-in-class business and governance models for smart cities: the real problem is not how the future state should look like (because it could be unfeasible for political or cultural reasons), but how to work within the constraints of the current state of affairs and yet progress on a reasonable roadmap.

In a nutshell, policy-makers, mayors, city managers, international organizations trying to make sense of all this smart city confusion and lured by vendors who look at this as the last resort for significant local government technology spending must pause and ask themselves: what can we possibly accomplish and by when within the political and financial constraints that cities operate within?

Flagship projects stuffed with fancy technology must be replaced by affordable and sustainable steps toward a better (and indeed smarter) city. There will still be opportunities for large, high-profile programs, but because of where the economy seems to be heading they will be limited to few developing countries where there is money to build new cities, or to special programs with huge budgets, like related to major events or real-estate private investments.

As a consequence, policies, roadmaps, assessment methods and benchmarks to advise and compare smart cities must be informed by pragmatism, must leverage the differences in legacy governance styles in different cities and aim at helping cities develop what they need and what they can, as opposed to striving for a theoretical model that would either be a bad fit or simply unaffordable or unsustainable after the investment or grant money is gone.

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