Challenges/Obstacles to getting to “Smart”

Last week, we examined some of the benefits of deploying “smart” technologies in major metropolises. But not all cities are on board yet with “smart.” This week, in Part 3 of our Smart Cities series, we address some of the challenges cities face in making the transition.

In Part I, we discussed the definition of the “Smart City,” and argued that ICT and broadband technologies are central to achieving it. In Part II, we showed some of the benefits of smart technologies for urban livability. But in his Urban Technologist blog, Rick Robinson, IT Director for Smart Data and Technology at UK engineering firm Amey, argues that the human dimension is just as important as the technological: “Creating ‘Smart Cities’ involves taking the right political, economic, social and engineering approaches to meeting [challenges faced by cities].”

Indeed, like all significant policy changes, getting to “smart” requires political support from top city leaders. Infrastructure and technology projects with such support will have competent directors appointed, and citizen and business community buy-in will help ensure that such projects outlast any given electoral cycle. Projects without such support are likely to be stillborn, or to lose funding or competent direction once a city’s political power changes hands. As Robinson argues, “For the most part, where [top city] leadership is not engaged I have not seen cities create business cases and issue procurements for Smart City solutions, and I have not seen them be successful winning research and innovation investments.”

Not only must cities’ top leadership and business communities make the case for a shift to “smart,” but political leaders must be willing to shape the private market. The market is necessary, but to get to “smart,” laissez-faire is out and politically-directed market creation is in. Often, the new infrastructure needed to provide the universal broadband that underpins smart city initiatives is so large that cities “need policy legislation to recognise the importance of digital infrastructure for cities so that it becomes a ‘given’ in any public service or infrastructure business case, not something that has to be individually justified [in each business plan]” (Robinson).

Finally, both bottom-up (individual citizens’ creativity) and top-down (policy) thinking are necessary, and urban planners must communicate the benefits and limitations of smart cities clearly to residents. Inclusive, honest approaches can build citizens’ support, while initiatives that include only engineers and employ overblown rhetoric may alienate residents and reduce support for smart efforts in the long run.

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