Six Smart City Myths…Busted

By Editor At Large Chelsea Collier and guest author Dustin Haisler

In the past three-ish years since the Department of Transportation issued its Smart City Challenge, there has been a flurry of activity across U.S. cities large and small. Some cities are quickly modernizing, some cities are testing and piloting, and all cities have some level of anxiety about what to do next.

If you’re confused, it’s okay, you’re not alone. There is a lot going on and it can be easy to get swirled up in the hype. Here is an overview of some key misconceptions and clarifying information about smart cities.

Myth 1: Smart Cities are all about technology.

False. Smart cities are about people. Technology is simply the enabler. It is the application. Being smarter is about the process where government learns to work with industry (including startups) and the community (nonprofits, civic groups, and actual residents) to address challenges. The journey to becoming smart requires a human-centered mindset and approach. The blur of digital solutions can be overwhelming for both city leaders and residents. There is a lot that is changing and the future is unpredictable. People do strange things when faced with the unknown. Sometimes they react by shutting down new ideas, protecting turf, or rejecting the opportunity to work with different types of people. This can feel awfully frustrating for innovators. Clarity about the mission can help alleviate some of that discomfort. When people frame the appropriate problems to solve, the vulnerability factor goes way down and the creativity element goes way up. That’s the good stuff. Then you apply technology. People first. Always.

Myth 2: Smart cities are only for big cities.

False. In fact, 30% of all smart city projects are in areas with a population of 150,000 or less. Some of the most exciting, innovative projects are in tiny towns with as few as 5,000 people. Size doesn’t matter here. The ability to embrace new ways of thinking and doing is what makes the difference. Being a smaller city can actually be an advantage. Smaller towns can be nimble and overcome the gridlock and regulatory red tape that plague many large metropolitan areas. Also, there are often personal connections that ease the difficulty of getting things done. If you’re interested in some examples of smart city projects in smaller municipalities, let us know and we’re happy to brag on some extraordinary civic tech innovators.

Myth 3: You need a bunch of money to do smart city projects.

False. There are so many creative ways to approach smart city projects. It turns out that the private sector – corporations, small businesses, startups – are excited to work with city leaders. It’s a chance to deploy technology that can city improve city service delivery and enhance the quality of life for residents. That is work with real impact and meaning. The hard part is that government and industry are very different creatures. Some cities can be difficult to work with due to bureaucracy, regulatory constraints and outdated policies. Cities aren’t exactly harbingers of change, nor is it appropriate for them to be. The public sector is responsible for the full public, not just a subset of the most desirable market. And there are all sorts of rules in place to protect that. Some of those rules are important. Some of them are annoying. Some of them are meaningless. Most of them are well-intentioned, even if they are misinformed. But creative people are overcoming the limitations and are using new approaches to design, test and scale smart city deployments. We’ll address the ways to pay for smart city projects in one of our future sections. So keep reading.

Myth 4: Smart City projects require being bleeding edge.

False. You don’t need to deploy blockchain or artificial intelligence (AI) to be a smart city. Instead of being consumed by the latest and greatest technologies, it is more important to use technology and ‘smart’ practices to deliver government services more effectively. It is most important to define who you are as a city and what your priorities are and then apply technology to help deliver. Don’t worry, we’ll guide you on how to do that.

Myth 5: Smart city projects can only be facilitated and executed by government leaders

False. Although it is helpful to have the right stakeholders, including key government actors involved in the deployment of smart cities technologies, it is not a requirement. If you think this sounds crazy, check out the Center for Digital Government’s finding that only 25% of smart cities deployments today are being led by government leadership. Smart city experiments can be successfully executed and measured at the line of business helping to further justify the need for an enterprise approach to future smart city deployments.

Myth 6: Smart city projects require cities to own their own infrastructure.

False. Smart cities use technology and ‘smart’ practices to improve the way services are delivered to residents. And cities no longer have to do this alone. The era of the smart city is all about partnership across sectors – public, private, nonprofit and academic. Before rushing to implement a “we own it” solution, cities must first go through the process of understanding what they have in the ways of communications (wireless and broadband Internet) and utility infrastructure. And even before this step, it is important to outline who you are as a city, what your goals and priorities are. Only then can you implement the correct solutions. (We’ll guide you on how to do this in Part 3.) One thing to be clear about – owning your own infrastructure (i.e., fiber, electric poles, streetlights, etc.) gives cities an advantage with testing or incubating new technologies, but is not a requirement. Cities can test new approaches to nudge behavior or make existing processes more efficient and effective. Again this is where partnerships come into play. Working across sectors to test and deploy smart technologies is the success model If you want more information check out our Utility Checklist and Connectivity Checklist.

Okay, so you have a better idea about what a smart city is and what it is not. Perhaps you are feeling more confident about how smart cities could be applied in your community. So what now?

Stay tuned because a Smart Cities Playbook will be published in the next few weeks.  We’ve expanded our article, 7 Steps to a Smarter City into a a hype-free guide that outlines in human terms what it means to be ‘smart’. It is designed to be short, easy to absorb and with a focus on actionable steps.