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July 05, 2016
Getting smarter about smart cities programmes
By: Jen Hawes-Hewitt

In my first blog on “smart cities digital transformation” I focused on how harnessing big data and analytics can help cities respond to real human needs, deliver better public service outcomes and drive a stronger entrepreneurial environment at the local level. By acting as an information broker, City Hall can transform service provision and improve the lives of citizens.

Having spoken of digital technologies and their role in creating smart cities, now I want to focus on the strategy, talent and leadership initiatives that can set your city on the right trajectory. Let’s look at five key success factors.

  1. Get specific

    The world has moved beyond general rhetoric about the power of data in public service. Now the charge is: Show us the specific digitally-enabled use cases cities can implement that can help solve a known business or social issue. Maybe it’s in supporting a specific hard-to-reach demographic, or maybe it’s about a certain avoidable issue that is costing the council financially. Going up the smart cities maturity curve, success is increasingly about focus and ROI. Understand your unique strengths and challenges. Be famous for something, as the city of Leeds has become in the area of citizen health and well-being.


  2. Develop or acquire the skill sets

    One of the biggest hurdles cities face right now is the lack of big data and analytics skill sets. City Halls haven’t traditionally prioritised digital capabilities so these aren’t skills they’ve nurtured over the past 20 years as the private sector has done. So in the next phase of maturity, cities will need to create an appropriate model for city government to get access to digital skills and experience—through shared capabilities with universities, and/or through directly attracting talent from the private sector.


  3. Appoint digital leaders

    As I’ve said before, cities need a digital leader—a Chief Digital Officer or someone to that effect—someone who can be both a digital “evangelist” and get things done. Without someone with authority, decision-making power and influence, there’s a risk that digital projects fail to align to the broader strategic agenda of the city and struggle to get to scale.

    A handful of places across the UK where that person is already in place, such as Leeds, and the appointment has really helped to accelerate the city’s digital agenda. I am encouraged by Manchester’s recent announcement of the GM Connect programme. That’s going to be focussed on data sharing and is the mirror of the Mayor’s office of data analytics that was set up in New York three years ago. I think there is an increased uptake in UK cities, but I would love to see more evangelists.


  4. Be “super collaborative”

    The cities that will be the fastest learners will be those that engage on a truly multi-disciplinary level. The nature of the challenges is complex, and require this diversity of inputs to be successful.

    It is those cities that proactively seek to collaborate with other cities—that build on their successes and learn from their challenges that will benefit. A Smart City always strives to be even smarter by proactively working to learn from other cities and exchange ideas and experiences, even pooling resources where it makes sense and co-developing standards.

    There are resources to help nurture these cross learnings. Our global research with Nesta and The Future Cities Catapult—including its most recent overlay of The Northern Powerhouse Analysis—offers some clear direction on how cities in the North of the UK could benefit from learning from each other, from international best practice and collaboration on common challenges.


  5. Tell success stories

    Finally, evangelists will need to be supported by stories. The most successful City CIO’s or CDO’s are those who can reel off specific cases where they have used digital to make a difference. So this means equipping evangelists with stories, examples and data to keep everyone moving forward.

    Evidence-based policy making is clearly present in the public sector, but it’s often more about long-term data collection and reflection—versus what we see in the private sector, which is much more real-time data-driven decision-making and future forecasting. That’s where I hope the smart cities concept is taking us.

    So here’s my recipe book to getting on the road to a smart city, perhaps some of these five suggestions feel obvious, but I’ve seen many cities struggle to get these elements aspects right. At this global transition point, where we’re converting the hype to reality, my sense is that it’s critical to embed the right design principles from the outset.


Hear more from Jen, who recently spoke at the Smart Cities Innovation Summit and the Big Debate.

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