Why do smart cities struggle to emerge?

It seems obvious for everyone that the Smart Cities, which have been buzzing for several years, have difficulty to emerge. Not that nothing is happening because there are remarkable initiatives, but the tidal wave announced has not yet arrived. This situation is not unrelated to what I see on a daily basis on the energy aspects of Smart Cities.

What are the reasons for this delay? Can we imagine that one day, the Smart Cities will develop as originally planned or will they become a new former good idea?

I do not pretend here to make an exhaustive diagnosis but simply to deliver some “moods” aroused by my recent experience.

Smart Cities requires medium-term vision and investments from municipalities

Responding to problems individually can prove to be very costly for cities as long as the solutions are based on technology. This leads to redundant investments made at each time for each solution. Moreover, the technologies deployed are not always compatible and the links between solutions, always interesting to develop, are only accessible after additional investments.

Optimizing costs such as improving the relevance of the solutions requires a vision. It is primarily a political vision: what future do we want for this city? What activities will it host? What will be the overall lifestyle of its inhabitants? How will the harmony, cohabitation and well-being of all be managed?

It is then a more practical view of all the solutions to be deployed and of their architecture.

Few municipalities have such a vision, and quite rare also are those now able of having one, and of engaging in long-term actions.

Municipalities often follow the rhythm of the electoral deadlines and then focus on the concern of being re-elected before that of acting in depth. Yet, the examples show that solving the fundamental problems leads to the reelection of the teams in place.

Smart Cities demand skills that cities rarely have.

Cities have generally developed skills of a prime contractor, specifying their need, leaving execution to “external” providers.

Cities are unique in terms of the stakes they have to address, the solutions they have to deploy. The benchmark has only a limited scope: it allows at best to detect some bricks of interesting solutions.

Each city can not avoid to carry out its own reflection; even if it is helped by specialists (and they must not simply copy what has been done elsewhere!), it must complete its own diagnosis and define its own answers.

It must have a less superficial knowledge of technologies to be able to judge the proposals made to it.

Many cities rely on large industrial partners: if these major partnerships prove to be virtuous, cities should not delegate their leadership but rather affirm and impose their orientations.

Municipal teams must adopt a more operational, practical, and, I dare say, more business driven attitude than they do today.

Smart Cities must change their mode of action

Developing digital technologies for the overall improvement of the operations and services offered by a city requires links between the teams, which differs from the usual, highly segregated organizations. Few cities have started this indispensable mutation.

I have already mentioned the need to operate in partnership with companies according to models not always codified in the local code of public procurement. The same is true for certain forms of investment, which are very attractive, particularly those financed by the operational earnings generated by the investment (energy performance contracts, for instance).

The Smart Cities are also an opportunity to develop the city’s relationship with its citizens. To listen to them, to better serve their need, to associate them, to better meet their expectations requires a profound change of attitude of the municipal teams. Cities often fall into two pitfalls: to delegate to the citizens their area of ??incompetence and to delegate to the citizens their responsibilities, and especially to ensure a global and harmonious evolution of the city. Falling into these traps generates frustration and resentment among the inhabitants and proves, over time, largely counterproductive.

The elected municipal teams must increase their commitment and engagement

Without a continuous leadership, without a daily (positive and fruitful) involvement of elected officials in operations, fieldwork, projects, Smart Cities emerge only very slowly. Often cities are in tight budgetary situations and lack of money is advanced as a reason delaying the actual start-up of a Smart City project. And the city continues to invest and spend in a non optimal way.

It is therefore necessary to break this vicious circle, to find means of initiating a different movement. This will is an expression of leadership and commitment. Without them, it is futile to expect cities responding to the challenges ahead.

Vision, skills, new modes of action, commitment are four rarely met conditions that, from my point of view, can account for much of the inertia observed in the emergence of Smart Cities.

These conditions are complex to gather and they often rely on the presence of an extraordinary mayor or more rarely an unusual municipal team. It is for this reason that the Smart Cities will develop slowly and rather on a basis of digital applications developed in a step by step, independent and rather chaotic way.

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