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Making Smart Cities Really Smart Takes a Change of Emphasis

By Andrea Di Maio | September 24, 2012 | 1 Comment

smart government

Last Thursday I attended a panel about Smart Cities in the context of the ICT competitiveness week, organized by DG CONNECT of the European Commission. The purpose was to discuss how both the European vendor community and European cities can best position themselves in this growth market as competitive in terms of securing a growing share of the trade and in terms of optimizing efficiency in delivering on public policy objectives.

The panel involved two representatives from large European companies providing components for smart cities, one representative from an actual city, one from a technology associations and a couple of analysts, including myself.

Each panelist was asked a question and after we all answered our question, there was a discussion involving the audience. Not surprisingly, most of the statements and the debate were about the importance of instrumenting cities with devices, building platforms to integrate applications and processes across domain, developing open standards to ensure interoperability and reduce vendor lock-in, and of course flocks of open data to enable citizen engagement and develop innovative applications.

What was remarkably missing, at least from my viewpoint, was a sufficiently strong reference to and understanding of who are the clients. Although therre was a clear understanding that technology-oriented pilots, such as those funded by the EU as well as by individual member states, have inherent sustainability problems, there does not seem to be sufficient impetus on looking for reasonable business model.

In my humble opinion, the economic viability is based on a combination of what we at Gartner call “smart” government:

  • affordability: can I afford the investment with my budget constraints?
  • sustainabiliy: can I sustain the solution over time and will it keep delivering value?
  • cross-boundary: the answer to the two questions above requires thinking outside the traditional organizational or constituency boundaries.

This does not mean to jump into large, high risk projects addressing multiple domains at the same time. It mean focusing on actual, high priority problems, pain points for individual domain (and buying centers). It implies less top down, horizontal, platform centered approach, and more bottom-up, vertical, evolutionary approach, transferring solutions from one domain to another.

I also argued that a useful way to reduce the complexity of a smart city endeavor is to consider five key dimensions:

  • why should a city be smart? because of environmental, financial, competitiveness issues or what?
  • who plays which role ina smart city? who are the users, the buyers, the investors, etc
  • what domains or processes need to be addressed first?
  • where is the smartness required? For a whole city, an urban area, a county, a state?
  • when does smartness come into place? does it refer to real-time operations or to slower planning or even policy-making cycles?

The keywords are focus, focus, and … focus. Relentless focus on user problems. Relentless focus on distinct buying centers (neither mayors nor citizens have a budget for smart cities, and department heads have a budget to solve their and not the overall city problems). Relentless focus on measuring outcomes rather than inputs.

At the end of the session, the moderator asked each panelist to use a single short sentence highlighting our respective view of the priorities for smart cities.

Mine was “Follow the money: understand who can make money and who can save money with smart cities“.

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1 Comment

  • Sanchezjb says:

    “At the end of the session, the moderator asked each panelist to use a single short sentence highlighting our respective view of the priorities for smart cities.” Mine would have been “The first priority or imperative is to recognize that being smart is not synonymous with being effective.”

    Effectiveness begins with defining the right problem(s) to be solved. “The Power of Defining the Problem” by @InnoCentiveCEO at is an excellent post on the importance of problem definition. My recommendation would be to start with one key problem, evaluate the “smart” solution’s effectiveness in resolving that problem, and then scale accordingly (assuming that effectiveness, as defined by established goals, was achieved).

    Once the right problem to be solved is identified, the next step is to determine the desired impact of the smart solution. That impact should drive the establishment of goals to assess effectiveness and efficiency.

    Having defined the problem and impact, then determine what actions are needed to bridge these two.