Smart Cities: Planning for Tomorrow Must Start Today

Anton D. (Tony) Batalla, Head of IT, City of San Leandro
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Anton D. (Tony) Batalla, Head of IT, City of San Leandro

Anton D. (Tony) Batalla, Head of IT, City of San Leandro

It’s an exciting time to be working in government. Public-sector CIOs & Innovators and solutions providers tend to talk about smart cities in terms of the future: autonomous cars, artificial intelligence / machine learning, 5G, drones, and the Internet of Things invariably find their way into our discourse on the subject. And for good reason: our dreams of finally replacing those stodgy, old government user experiences with human-centered, Amazon-inspired 21st century designs seem tantalizing close. However, in our zest for technological breakthroughs, I’m afraid we sometimes lose sight of what it means to innovate in government. Rather than focusing exclusively on the radical potential of tomorrow, we should engage in the decidedly less sexy but far more important process of long-term planning today.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, a “smart city” is generally considered to be a government organization that embraces the use of technology to make the services they deliver better, thereby, improving the quality of life for its residents. For example, Public Wi-Fi is a common smart city technology that cities use to deliver free Internet service. This can be a simple amenity, to encourage economic development in commercial zones like a downtown core, or can be part of a larger Digital Inclusion strategy to tackle the digital divide and connect the underserved.

Another real-world example is smart street lighting, which can be connected in a wireless mesh network and controlled remotely from a browser or an app. Such systems can send out proactive text alerts to public works crews, saving time and money, while the brighter illumination from modern LED scan create a higher sense of safety and well-being among the public. Likewise, intelligent traffic signals can adjust signal timing dynamically based real-time traffic conditions, which can reduce traffic congestion, car emissions, and greatly increase throughput in intersections and major arterials. Chatbots are starting to respond to 311 requests, provide customer service, and so on. The benefits and outcomes of smart city tech range from increased public safety, faster city response times, lower carbon emissions, to cost savings and financial ROI for municipal organizations and their private sector partners.

This will, of course, require important public policy decisions about privacy, security, and trust. However, it’s not hard to imagine a model future city where everything and everyone is connected. In this vision, the city itself becomes a technology platform, using mobile apps to connect people with both city and private-sector services. The city platform, through sensor technology, would collect real-time data and these new datasets, in turn, would enable data analytics teams to generate new insights into our built environments. These insights would further translate into better planning, policy, public safety, management, and maintenance of our public spaces. However, at the same time, it can be difficult to imagine our current government institutions getting to that point on their own.

  Our job today is to plan for tomorrow and create systems and organizational structures where innovation will sustain for years to come  

Therein lies the problem.

We tend to think of government as old-fashioned, slow to change, not technically-savvy, and, oftentimes, hard to deal with. This, in effect, makes them ripe for “disruption.” So, the answer appears to be obvious: simply apply the theory of disruptive innovation, originally posited by Clayton Christensen, to government and– voila!–You will unleash the smart city of the future. But, this is a simplistic line of thinking and I will show you why.

Disruption presupposes that whatever it is being disrupted is fundamentally and fatally flawed. In the context of local government, however, this inaccurate. While your mileage may vary, local governments have historically done a good job of keeping the operation going. Through both recessions and booms, the street lights have remained on, roads are maintained at a basic level, building permits continue to be approved, and, crucially, public safety services are always available. In addition, disruption also presumes there are massive rewards for risk-taking when it pays off. Governments, of course, are structurally designed to be risk-adverse in order to protect public funds. This all runs counter to the ethos of “move fast and break things”; governments are meant to do the opposite-move slow and fix things.

Now, this doesn’t mean government organizations cannot innovate. Nor does it mean governments shouldn’t develop big picture “moonshots.” It means that governments must find ways to innovate that mitigate structural risks or shift them to the private sector. Call this the theory of “safe innovation.” In order to achieve this, governments should play to their strengths. For example, cities governments are required to develop General Plans that project decades into the future and are updated every ten years. This perfectly positions them to develop and implement long-ranging visions.

Smart City technology implementations should be no different. Government Innovators should embrace the long-term, incremental approach. Starting small can help CIOs and solutions providers get quick wins, building credibility and support for larger and more ambitious projects, which may take years to fully realize. Although the time frame can seem downright glacial to startups and solutions providers, this approach will earn them trust, respect, and teamwork from government leaders. For CIOs and innovators, this will help them cultivate an organizational culture where creative and innovative ideas are nurtured and adopted. And that’s what really matters.

As Jack Welch said, “innovation is a series of little steps that, cumulatively, lead up to a big deal that changes the game.” That’s what the smart city promise is all about, not disruption. It’s a long, transformational journey, more akin to climbing a mountain than winning a sprint. Our job today is to plan for tomorrow and create systems and organizational structures where innovation will sustain for years to come.

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