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April 6, 2018

Building smart cities the smarter way

Much promotion of smart cities assumes that municipalities will take a proactive, top-down, technology-first approach to urban progress. Thus far, these initiatives look for some forward-thinking city official (or immensely deep-pocketed private investor) to write a big purchase order for a lot of hardware and software, in the same way an industrial company like Procter & Gamble buys a multimillion dollar SAP install.

But 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). This constraint means that city leaders often can’t take the lead in fully vetting, designing, and overseeing new technologies and business models. The result: Innovative and aggressive vendors have room to step into the breach and implement concepts and ideas on their own, with results that often favor elites (or descend into ineffectiveness) over good public policy.

I believe public-private partnerships can lead to smarter cities. But a truly smart smart city investment requires looking at three dimensions: characteristics of cities, capital requirements for various initiatives, and the decision-making process. I suggest decision makers in these initiatives follow an analytical sequence of situation, solution, and sovereignty.

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