Not Your Average Report: An Overview of Enabling and Sustaining Connected Communities Rooted in Solving Societal Challenges 

America’s smart city journey, which is almost a decade-long*, has been defined by rapid evolution on several fronts. Of course technology has advanced, but what is more interesting (at least to me) is how cross-sector partnerships have developed. 

In the beginning the smart cities movement was mostly defined by a government-industry dynamic that felt more like a marketplace. There was a careful tension between city and industry leaders who grappled with how to define challenges and suggest solutions to address those challenges. Over the past few years, however, academic, community organizations, and federal institutions have become a more integrated part of the framework. I believe this is a cause to celebrate as true civic innovation requires all of these sector partners. 

Against this backdrop enters a well timed report – Enabling and Sustaining Connected Communities Rooted in Solving Societal Challengeswhich was compiled by ​​Metro21: Smart City Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The report showcases findings from an initiative involving three core groups: government and community leaders, academics, and funders. The report states that this work was “designed to foster and elicit diverse, creative ideas that could solve challenges, not just identify them.” 

An in-person workshop served as the primary vehicle to deliver these insights. Organizers wisely preceded the workshop with a series of moderated listening sessions on the topics of climate resilience, ecosystem services, energy, mobility and transportation, and multiple applications. Interviewed experts were able to provide candid, anonymized feedback about the challenges of “deploying, sustaining, and scaling connected communities projects.” Surveys were also a part of the data collection. 

The report’s information gathering process speaks to an authentic approach designed to uncover often-unspoken truths. In other words, this isn’t just another fluffy report ghost written by consultants talking about the promise of smart cities. Instead, the 27-page document reflects insights from those involved in the day-to-day work of smart city making (the report prefers the term connected community). 

The report’s key findings are organized by three core input areas which include:

  1. Putting Communities in the Lead
  2. Sustaining Innovations
  3. Integrating and Scaling Successful Technologies in New Communities

The reports’ summary is informative and the full text provides a detailed overview including contributions and action items for the NSF, academia, and local government. Those who want a peek behind the scenes would be wise to read the full report including the anonymized notes from the listening sessions. Following is my subjective summary and commentary of the three input areas. 

Putting Communities in the Lead focuses on two critical components: (1) partnerships to be created and maintained by dedicated staff in government and academia who are enabled with time, resources and incentives; and (2) community-informed, research-based, actionable innovation plans that reflect the unique needs and opportunities of the local municipality or region.

Recognizing the importance of these two areas, and calling out the need to allocate the necessary support demonstrates diligence to get to the true potential of realizing human-centered smart city solutions. This section honors the dedicated civic champions, who I describe as those whose “eyes light up at the possibility of trying innovative approaches to complex socio-economic issues.”  They are most often doing the work of at least three people – designing and developing programs all while trying to garner support both from colleagues in city government as well as external entities. Building partnerships is simply the required currency of doing the work, but rarely is this activity recognized for the skill, time, or mental energy it requires. I am, therefore, thrilled to see respected institutions such as Metro21 and the National Science Foundation (NSF) include this critical point in their reflection. 

The Sustaining Innovation section shifts attention to technology and innovation, concentrating on skills development and capacity building. Other priorities of this section include establishing evaluation criteria as well as legal and policy guidelines to scale the impact of pilot projects. 

Once again, these findings focus on the human power required to extend headline-grabbing announcements into longer-term programs that make notable community impact. The inclusion of metrics and guidelines speak not only to creating accountability, but also to establishing benchmarks to shepherd future innovation either within or beyond the original team. This kind of scalability motions not only to projects that benefit a few within a specific sector, but that create lasting effect.  

Finally, the Integrating and Scaling Successful Technologies in New Communities section covers the importance of educating and engaging audiences beyond the primary actors. Recommendations range from creating a public portal, to developing opportunities to convene people, and publish project findings. 

It is impressive to see consideration paid to amplifying the learnings from smart city projects. There are so many important activities taking place across the country but it can be a challenge to catalog and communicate these projects so that others may learn. City staff are already maxed leading the charge of innovation while government communications offices are often busy with the more mundane tasks of sharing the important day-to-day of providing city services. Academic journals provide in depth research and scholarly contributions, but are often not accessible to the general public. As a result, the important, but often overlooked work of smart city plans and pilots can often go unnoticed, missing the opportunity to both inspire and offer new avenues for investigation. 

In Summary… Gratitude

The Enabling and Sustaining Connected Communities Rooted in Solving Societal Challenges Report is an important and necessary step to convene a wide berth of experts who authentically identified some of the challenges of U.S. smart city making that can be quickly transformed into opportunities. Thank you to NSF for funding this important work, to Karen Lightman and the staff at Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, as well as the Co-PIs from Carnegie Mellon University. This work is proof that the act of truly listening and transparently sharing the results and findings can be transformative. I am excited for the smart cities community to read and internalize this work and I’m looking forward to seeing how this manifests for the future of smart cities. 

*I use the Smart City Challenge, issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in December 2015 as the official start of the U.S.’s smart city initiatives.