You Can’t Have a Smart City without a Smart Plan

By | September 19, 2016

I recently had the privilege of attending the TM Forum InFocus Smart City conference as a guest of TM Forum, ZTE and the city of Yinchuan, China. After several days of presentations, discussions and casual conversations my sense is that cities all over the world face the same challenges, but each has its own priorities.  In some locations, security and public safety present the greatest obstacles while others would benefit more from applying connected digital services to transportation or energy.

All of the city leaders that spoke at the conference and that I met during the event emphasized the need to serve the residents. But it takes a long time to navigate the regulatory, approval, public/private partnership and financial processes; and once that is all done, the result is often a technology budget. And while it’s good to have funding, it’s more important to have a plan. Like it or not, the easiest part of any Smart City project is the technology. There’s more than enough technology to deliver any sort of smart city initiative, but what should that initiative be?

Transportation, energy, healthcare, public safety? Those are services that governments are tasked to provide, but adding the word “smart” to a government service doesn’t necessarily make it valuable to citizens. A plan that effectively and efficiently defines city processes and services is infinitely more important than the technology chosen to implement it. Most municipalities have a website, but is it useful? Can citizens easily find and use government services from that site or is it an on-line pamphlet that could just as easily be included in a tax bill?

More Than Technology

Once a smart city project is initiated, there are three parallel planning efforts that need to be executed.

  1. Identify the area of greatest need. Absent an overwhelming deficiency in current services, identify the area of greatest visibility.

Some of the speakers at the conference are using technology to address serious, urgent issues, but others can wade into the Smart City pool in a way that benefits the municipality but doesn’t carry the risk of a multi-year, multi-billion dollar infrastructure project. For example, I live in Colorado and while there are transportation and housing issues that certainly need to be addressed, those problems require political rather than technical willpower. A low risk, quick turnaround effort here would be a Smart Tourism initiative that helps the state remind the rest of the country that there is more to Colorado, like skiing and biking, than legal marijuana.

  1. Wherever you start, make it part of a broader vision.

It’s great to put together a team and get to work but when it comes to larger decisions concerning partnerships and technology, it’s important to be inclusive. So many times, government initiatives that should be complementary are unknown to other departments or, worse, competing for resources. If planned and procured properly, the platform for the first “Smart” initiative should become the platform for all of them. Cloud-based solutions are available that can be set up in a secure, multi-tenant environment such that any future department initiative can have its own space, but the IT folks only have to take care of one platform and one contractor. Likewise, any apps that are built, added, linked or otherwise engaged at a later date can use a common interface.

  1. Now get funding, approvals and support – lots of support.

Once project and platform requirements are specified, it’s easier to understand what it will take to deliver the service. If we’re not talking about building bridges or digging up streets, the main concern is cost of ownership. A good Request for Proposal (RFP) will ask those questions and include requirements for scalability, reliability, availability and interoperability. And since many governments would like to procure the necessary infrastructure and platforms as a service, it would also be good to ask about technology refresh and incorporating innovation over the life of the contract.

Support is essential and while that’s not news, it’s important that support come from both inside and outside government. Maybe the governor is a supporter of the project, but there’s an election and now there’s a new governor. Public/private partnerships provide financial, technical and marketing support. Private companies that are partnering with government will publicize the effort and garner public support. If the public is visibly and vocally supporting the project, newly elected officials might be less likely to eliminate it.

With a plan, there’s also a budget that is more realistic than the broad estimates we usually see for service improvements. Residents and government officials alike will know how much will be spent and what it is being spent on. (That also helps contractors deliver more accurate bids and deliver on-time.)

Once there is a contract, there is a deliverable. Right or wrong – that’s what you get. So it’s in the best interest of cities, states and government municipalities of all types to put their energy into the planning process.

Start planning by answering the most basic questions:

What service should you be providing?


Who will be using it?

How will it be used?

When will it be used?

Where is it available? Is it accessible by all citizens, not just those with advanced communication services?

Some smart city projects are aligned with larger infrastructure projects such as building roads or trains, but it’s also possible to start small and make a very visible and positive difference to citizens. Smart City projects are less about infrastructure and more about services. Plan the service, not just the technology. Understand the process, not just the software. Procure a solution, not just infrastructure. Serve citizens, not just bureaucracy.