July 2014

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The Road to the Smart City

A starting point in transforming a city to a smart city is to look inward.

Jim SinopoliJim Sinopoli PE, LEED BD+C, RCCD
Managing Principal,
Smart Buildings LLC

Contributing Editor

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Smart CityOnce a week some city on the planet announces it will become a “Smart City”. Most can’t exactly describe what makes a city smart but they know it involves ubiquitous high speed internet and lots of smartphone apps. They hope that just by labeling the city smart it will surely increase economic activity and its “livability”, draw people to the city, and lift spirits of the citizenry and productivity for all.

The reason smart cities matter is that as the world’s population grows it becomes more urbanized. In 1990 less than 40% of people lived in cities. By 2030, its estimated 60% of the population will be in cities; by 2050 70%. Given those trends cities will need to dramatically increase their livability and sustainability.

Increased urbanization also means a greater number of buildings and key urban systems. There appears to be an overarching commonality in smart buildings and smart cities; it is the use of advanced technology to improve the “performance” of the entity. It involves automation, information technology, communications, integration, data mining and analytics.

MasdarThe cities we sometime look to as examples of smart cities (Songdos, South Korea; Masdar, United Arab Emirates and PlanIT Valley, Portugal) all have their own story and issues: Songdos is an airport city close to completion, yet 80% of their commercial space is not occupied. Masdar was initially going to be carbon– neutral, but had to recalibrate to just being low-carbon. The Masdar Institute just has a few hundred students, project completion has been pushed out to somewhere between 2020 and 2025, and so far it’s not financially viable. PlanIT Valley has been delayed by financial issues although they‘ve been testing some of the data software for PlanIT at the London City Airport. Supposedly the project construction started in the fourth quarter of last year, with the first phase of PlanIT targeted operational in 2014.

All three examples are new cities where one would think the “smart” parts could easily be deployed. But we may need to rethink the “if we build it they will come” approach, because the people and the investments don’t seem to have materialized for these developments. Could it be that existing and mature cities have a much easier path to becoming a smart city since they already have some history, an established governance, citizens, and infrastructure systems in place?

Cities thinking of becoming a smart city should not start with a focus about technology or immediately contract with a technology company. The reason to put the technology on the “back burner” is that technology is just an enabler. The heavy lifting is in the city developing a plan for what they really want to be in the future. Technology facilitates and catalyzes process change, but it’s secondary to the change itself. Procuring technology and automation should be one of the last steps, not – as it so often is – the first. Don’t buy technology with little or no thought of the process changes that may be required for a city.

TimeA starting point in transforming a city to a smart city is to look inward. Take stock of your city. Develop a methodical approach to accomplish three things: (a) assess existing city processes and systems, (b) identify pain points and, more importantly, the root causes of those pain points, and (c) review current strategies and their alignment with current city goals and objectives.

An assessment will collect information that will result in identifying needed improvements in city infrastructure and systems; eventually making city services more efficient and effective. The assessment should provide the initial expected results of a system or program as well as the actual impact the program has on city residents. The initial systems for assessment should include: 

The goals or objectives of each program/system need to be broken down to specific statements, each with some type of measurement and key performance indicator so the city can determine whether the program or system objectives were achieved. Information gathered through the assessment process can be either qualitative or quantitative. Every system or program has multiple stakeholders who have an interest, as well as ideas and opinions in the assessment process.

The long range plan has to have very specific objectives as well as metrics so you can delineate and measure the success being made in deploying the smart city. For example, one objective may be to reduced energy consumption by 30% or increase renewable energy sources by 50% or reduce the traffic congestion travel time index by 10 minutes.

Planning and process change in a city is a collaborative activity, so a very broad organizational buy-in is needed.  Yes, you need the senior city executives and different departments on board, but it’s also critical to involve the citizenry and co-op the people who will be directly affected by the proposed changes in their daily work. Put together the right project team from a cross-section of the organization to run the smart city project.

The key here is clearly identifying the real problems. You don’t want abstract goals and objectives; you want concrete steps that result in benefits for the city. If the proposed change is meant to streamline a process for citizens or a workflow for city staff, estimate the benefits of the proposed change and develop specific metrics to measure the effects and eventual success. Also identify expected benefits for other departments. An energy-management initiative might help purchasing and accounting departments, for instance, or a proposed workflow change might improve coordination with other departments.

Reliable Controls Two major goals should drive the changes: making city processes more efficient or effective and better aligning those processes with the city’s long term strategy.

Measure twice, cut once

The deployment phase of any smart city process change should start with a pilot or test period. This is the proof-of-concept phase, allowing for adjustments prior to a full rollout, as well as pilot results that can be used to raise financial support for a complete rollout. During this test rollout, make sure to measure and monitor everything and get feedback from everyone involved.

Make change part of your City DNA

The idea of constantly assessing existing processes within city operations and readjusting as required should be integral part of city management.  Change can be hard. We tend to get into a comfortable routine and want to stay there. But the culture of city management departments should be “systematic innovation,” somewhat like the mindset of large IT companies that are continuously pushing the envelope. The ubiquitous nature of technology and the complexity of a modern city are strongly pushing cities into the same frame of mind. 


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