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February 02, 2017
Technology should be the servant, not the master in smart cities
By: Simon Giles

Over the last ten years Smart Cities has tended to be defined by the technologies that have been implemented. Whilst this is understandable, it is a legacy of the initial marketing investment by technology companies and their control over the narrative. However, there has been a cost to putting technology in the foreground, we have missed what really matters to the development of cities: people. Digital disruption is about much more than technology. In fact, at the COPENHAGEN’S SMART CITY - SMART STRATEGY 2017 CONFERENCE, we explored a different approach. And it’s one that broadens the definition and scope of the conversations that we could- and, in our opinion, should - be having about cities and their response to the transformational opportunities presented by digital disruption.

Digital transformation is about solving stubborn problems in new ways. So rather than starting with the technology, we should start with the problems that we need to solve. In too many cases, the technology (sensors, IoT, etc.) is a solution in search of a problem. Reversing that means that we become issue-driven and outcome-focused. The consequence of this is that we can identify pools of value that can be released over time, creating a strong foundation for sustainable business models that enable us to move from pilot to full scale roll -out. Without a relentless focus on value, we will be constantly stuck in a cycle of pilots that erode confidence in the solutions and sap the investment appetite of senior leadership in the private sector.

So, what does that mean in practice? It starts with observing and talking to citizens, finding out what’s really important to them and the challenges they face. Then design-thinking puts citizens at the heart of any proposed solution, and with that understanding in place you can begin to design a solution and articulate how value will be created. Only then is the technology introduced as the enabler of the solution rather than the starting point. A rapid prototype can be tested quickly and, if it’s not working, abandoned quickly with a ‘fail fast and learn’ mindset. If successful, implementing the solution and scaling it comes next, and the benefits it generates are measured against the value framework.

A new approach to solving citizens’ problems

If cities want to adopt this design and value driven approach, it will require a retooling of the skills and capabilities that currently exist in most local governments. We will need skilled ethnographic researchers to identify what it is that citizens really want. We will need creative ‘story tellers’, along with data scientists and visualisation specialists, who can articulate value and harness the data. We will also need product development teams who can deliver rapid prototypes and implementation teams that can simultaneously work with agility and manage the challenges associated with scaling.

Unfortunately, these skills and capabilities are in great demand and the public sector will be competing with private sector organisations. For cities to access these skills they may need to be creative in the way that they access them. One option is to procure them as needed, but this will be relatively expensive. Another option may be to create a new wave of higher value shared services that allow multiple departments and jurisdictions to access a common pool of skills. One interesting approach to accelerating the development of these shared services could be to create co-sourced models (public/private partnerships) that buy in immediate skills from the private sector and marry those skills with the longer-term development of public sector skills.

In Denmark, it was very encouraging to see a wider ecosystem developing that shows real potential to support design-led innovation in the public sector, with the private sector and other agencies playing key roles. With the likes of the Danish Design Centre, Copenhagen Solutions Lab and Bloxhub there is already a strong nucleus of a public service design ecosystem. Design is in the Danish DNA; if anyone can deliver this it is Denmark. The excitement and energy generated by the new thinking and concepts we discussed in Copenhagen was very clear. It’s a momentum we should build on. Fast.

To learn more about building the smart cities of tomorrow visit us here, and follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

See this post on LinkedIn: Technology Should be the Servant, Not the Master in Smart Cities

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