Dec 20, 2018

Joined-up thinking for smart cities

What are the more common justifications for smart city investments? Citizen-centred service needs, political priorities and a positive return-on-investment (RoI) would certainly feature in the list of possibilities.

All too often, however, individual smart city initiatives are destined to become orphan investments [1]. These are standalone or siloed solutions. They meet a timing imperative or they are designed in isolation from system-wide factors [2].

Cities are starting to combine different smart city applications such as transport and environmental monitoring. Or, transport and workforce management in the utilities and welfare services sectors. As they do so, they will face significant operational and technology integration challenges. That is unless they are deliberately choosing to underwrite multiple, and potentially sub-scale, support teams.

So, how does one go about persuading business decision makers and technical architects as to the benefits of joined-up solutions? In the context of smart cities, a neat idea comes from a recent presentation that Trevor Brennan (Strategy & Programme Manager, Hertfordshire County Council) delivered at the Smarter Travel Live! Conference [3]. He illustrates how one smart city initiative creates the foundation for derivative and complementary applications that eventually cross organizational boundaries and break down silo solutions.

SOURCE: Trevor Brennan, Hertfordshire County Council – Data platforms, shared data and data management presentation at Smarter Travel Live! 2018 

My interpretation of this illustration is that it begins with a focus on intelligent transport systems, using journey time data at different points in a road network to improve traffic flow. This branches off to the management of parking facilities and which leads to a shift in the local population’s use of different transport modes. As an aside, this is the direction of travel for the mobility as a service (MaaS) industry.

The application opportunities don’t stop there. Once municipal agencies look at different modes of transport, there is a short hop to the issue of (short and long-term) planning which introduces ideas about social cohesion (e.g. responsiveness to social media information feeds, optimization of welfare services, better integration of citizens living in affluent and less wealthy neighborhoods etc.). By this stage, departmental and private-public boundaries are dissolving through partnership operating models, much of this enabled by ‘open data’.

This sequencing of solution opportunities should make decision makers think broadly and strategically when evaluating smart city implementation ideas. Taken individually, many of these ideas will fail an RoI-like investment hurdle. The valuation picture would be different if downstream possibilities, and the option value inherent in a horizontal-platform approach (i.e. common infrastructure that supports multiple applications and promotes interoperability [4]), had been captured.

Since IoT and smart city opportunities are broad in scope, what lessons does this example hold for decision makers? One is to think expansively when designing and evaluating IoT solutions. To get going, it is fine to focus start-up investments in a single department or a well-defined solution. That works in the long run if that first initiative can scale efficiently and accommodate a widening of scope.

A second lesson is about the operational processes to support an initial service. These should not be so rigid that they cannot adapt when boundary conditions inevitably change. In the future, after all, departments will increasingly work together, driven by cost considerations and the value of joined-up government. Some departments might be spun-out as standalone entities while continuing to work with their parent organizations. And, public and private sectors will build on established business models to find higher value and more integrated ways to work together.


[1] The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Municipal CEO https://www.etsi.org/images/files/ETSIWhitePapers/etsi_wp26_city_digital_profile.pdf 

[2] Putting users first is not the answer to everything - https://medium.com/doteveryone/putting-users-first-is-not-the-answer-to-everything-dd05b9f11b5 

[3] Smarter Travel Live! Conference – Data platforms, shared data and data management - http://www.landor.co.uk/smartertravel/2018/conference/programme.php 

[4] In 2018, Prepare for IoT Interoperability, https://www.rtinsights.com/in-2018-prepare-for-iot-interoperability/ 

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