Who Will Make Our Cities Smart?

A strategic roadmap to planning smart city projects.

The concept of the “smart city” has taken hold across the world. Advocates hope it will solve age-old urban challenges – from mobility to health care – in new, innovative ways. In Canada, this idea inspired the Smart Cities Challenge, which pushed municipalities of all sizes to come up with proposals for creative new projects.

But a great idea is just a first step. What’s the best way to transform these ideas into systems and infrastructure that actually make a difference?

Forbes contributor John Macomber examines this question in The Smart Way to Build Cities. He argues that cities don’t necessarily work the way smart city advocates think they do. Advocates assume cities are similar to corporations, and that city leaders will take a proactive, top-down approach to implementing projects. In practice, this doesn’t usually happen.

“Most cities don’t work like corporations. They tend to be both siloed (so departments don’t work on solutions together, let alone work in conjunction with pilot project sponsors) and strapped for cash (so there is no budget for experimentation).”

- John Macomber, Forbes contributor

The result is that city leaders rarely take the lead in designing and implementing new technologies and systems. Instead, vendors take this role – and unlike city leaders, vendors aren’t usually experts in good public policy.

Macomber says that when it comes to building smarter cities, public-private partnerships make sense. But these partnerships work best when mayors, city leaders, investors, and companies consider three important dimensions:

1. Situation

No two cities are exactly alike, and it’s important to consider a city’s specific characteristics when making investment decisions. Citing a 2017 McKinsey & Company story about urban mobility, Macomber identifies four distinct combinations of wealth, growth, and density that shape a city’s character.

  • Dense cities in developed economies, e.g., Tokyo
  • Dense cities in emerging economies, e.g., Mexico City
  • Low-density cities in developed economies, e.g., Calgary
  • Low-density cities in emerging economies, e.g., Jakarta

These city types have very different infrastructure and decision-making frameworks. What counts as a life-changing innovation in Tokyo may not have the same effect in Calgary.

2. Solution

To Macomber, this describes the “how” and the “why” of a given smart project. Smart city projects fall into an incredibly broad category, and not all projects cost the same or provide the same benefits.

“Considerations of ‘how expensive’ and ‘why is this good for citizens’ vary immensely and can’t just be lumped into some pool of tech dreams of the smart city industry.”

- John Macomber

3. Sovereignty

The category Macomber says is the most overlooked is the question of sovereignty: who decides what gets done? Some technologies, such as Airbnb and Uber, arise independently of government planners. Others, such as traffic signal coordination or congestion pricing, require government investment and control.

Macomber also considers the question – one as old as cities themselves – of how a given project will be paid for. Decision makers must consider payment (how will an investment be repaid?), predictability (how risky is the investment?), and permissions (what studies, permits, and paperwork are required?)

Macomber points to many newsworthy “ground-up” smart cities projects including Sidewalk Toronto and Belmont in Arizona, as well as vendor-driven services like drone deliveries and Wi-Fi stations, but he wonders if these projects act more like showrooms than replicable models. To be life-changing, Macomber recommends smart city infrastructure be the product of a thoughtful situation-solution-sovereignty decision-making process.

July 13th, 2018
Updated: August 23rd, 2018

Smart city innovations don’t always pair with good public policy – but a thoughtful decision-making framework can change this.