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Three starting points when building a smart city

There’s no one-size-fits-all way of building a smart city, but these three approaches can help any city become smarter faster.

Every city can be made smarter by technology. But knowing how to start on the right path to become a smart city can be hard because no two cities are alike and there’s no one-size-fits-all way of getting there. Some cities have already taken stabs at digital transformations, while others have yet to begin. Private enterprise has taken the lead in some municipalities, while in others, government has taken center stage. And in some instances, a city is a blank slate, waiting to be transformed.

Although there’s no single way for all municipalities to become smart cities, there are three starting points and journey options for getting there, based on the city’s digital status, private enterprise engagement, government funding, know-how, and will.

In this article, we’ll outline the three different paths and explain how cities can determine where they are on the journey, which path they should take, and how best to put a plan into action. 

Before starting, cities and their IT staffs must realize that cities are ecosystems, and you cannot predict how an ecosystem will react to changes you introduce. You need to be flexible and willing to change as the journey evolves. You must be willing to readjust your infrastructure and plans because the trail to building a smart city is a never-ending journey of adaptation.

With that in mind, let’s get started.

The market-driven approach

In a market-driven approach, a city starts its digital transformation based on what private enterprise are already doing. The city partners with businesses and uses enterprise-led improvements as a starting point for bringing intelligent infrastructure and solutions to the city. The way this works is best illustrated by an example from a city in Europe, where soccer is extremely popular. 

We were working with a well-known soccer team that has an elite school for children who may become major soccer players. The team was looking to transform the school by leveraging analytics, data, and other technologies to improve how it teaches, to make its talents more successful.

But a school doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It operates in a context, specifically a soccer stadium and the neighborhood surrounding the stadium. The team turned its stadium into a state-of-the-art facility to deliver a pure soccer experience, gather more information about players’ performances, and help players improve. The team also wanted the stadium to be a more welcoming place for fans. It worked on bringing stores, malls, and theaters to the neighborhood around the stadium.

The new stadium and stores required new infrastructure with intelligence built into it. Using them, city government partnered with private industry to bring new services to the neighborhood and its citizens. In this kind of partnership, everyone wins—the enterprise and city both get value out of it. 

Once citizens in other areas of the city see the benefits delivered to the neighborhood, they in turn will demand the same kind of services as well. And the entire city becomes transformed in this way.

Gartner report: Smart city funding models: It’s time to be creative!

The point solution approach

In the point solution approach, the city department pinpoints specific issues that need solving—for example, easing traffic—and focuses on them first. The key is to not work on such a solution in isolation but instead look for synergies with other IT departments in the city. While cities are often fragmented, with different departments having different budgets, different horizons, and different targets, by working together on related point solutions, they can start aligning their smart city goals.

IT should also look beyond individual departments, and engage with the mayor and other levels of government. Often, the mayor has a vision about the city’s intelligent future, and IT can piggyback onto that. Furthermore, if the city is in a country where there is a big push around smarter cities, it can get financing or expertise from the federal or state government.

Here’s an example of how this might work. Let’s say a city wants to build a smart parking solution that includes an app that shows people the parking spots nearest them. Doing that helps people find parking easily and also makes sure the city’s parking lots are evenly filled, making the most effective use of them.

Meanwhile, another city department is working on reducing pollution by banning cars from some parts of the city when pollution rises above a certain level. Wouldn't it make sense for the smart parking solution to be tied to the pollution solution so that when people are looking for places to park, they’re not sent to a forbidden zone because of the pollution that day? Or if they are driving an electric car and they're looking for a place to park, they are allowed to go to the banned zone because they are driving a clean car? 

By tying together multiple point solutions like this, and working with outside agencies, a smart city can be built up step-by-step in a natural, organic way.

The holistic approach

The third path to building a smart city is to take a holistic, top-down approach. You can do this when you have all the funds you need, and you can plan everything from the beginning. Start by building the city’s physical infrastructure and then overlay your digital infrastructure on top of that. You deploy the right data framework and the right API and center everything around data, the virtual fuel of smart cities. You can then publish the data and launch an applications marketplace. Anyone can access data from the marketplace, which unleashes the imagination of both private enterprise and city departments to build new applications and solutions to make the city a better place. 

Ultimately, using this approach, decision-makers and city planners have enough data at the right time to make the best decisions that benefit the city and its citizens. This has been done in Dubai, for example, and India, with its giant megacities, is doing it as well.

How to choose the right path 

What can a city do to start on the right path toward becoming a smart city? Above all, don’t overthink what needs to be done. Don’t wait. Just get started. You’ll find that once you identify your first uses cases and start deploying your first set of solutions, what you need to tackle next will become obvious. 

Avoid solutions that will re-create boundaries. The whole point of smart cities is to make connections, not build barriers. The value is in the connections you create. And as you’re working on a specific solution, always keep the big picture and your end goals in mind, so you can pivot toward them. 

For example, let’s say a city decides to embark on a smart waste solution. The solution may begin as a way to reduce the amount of a city’s waste, but it can end up doing much more than that. It can help with improving inefficient trash-collection routes, for example. It can help reduce pollution and noise. It can help make the city cleaner. So you should always think about the next step you’re going to take, because that's going to influence the choices you make today. That means your work will never be done—and that’s a good thing, because you’ll keep improving the city.

Finally, recognize that in building a smart city, you only start from scratch when you take the holistic approach. Otherwise, you always have legacy systems to deal with. Even more important, you have to deal with the “legacy” city, including its infrastructure, services, and processes. And you always have existing choices that have been made for you by your predecessors. So you need to align your existing environment with the right IT technology to meet not just your immediate business needs but get you closer to your ultimate vision of a smart city. 

Take the next step on your IoT journey: HPE’s IoT Transformation Workshop connects HPE experts with your key stakeholders.

Three paths to a smarter city: Lessons for leaders

  • Market-driven approach: Start with what private enterprise initiatives have already done, partner with them, and build out from there.
  • Point solution approach: Pinpoint a problem that needs solving. Work with other city departments to connect it to smart solutions they’re working on.
  • Holistic approach: Plan everything from scratch. Overlay the right digital infrastructure over the city’s physical one, and gather the right data that can be used to make the city smarter.

Useful links: 

Developing an urban digital strategy that makes sense

How to build a smart city that will last

An Italian approach to technology and urban design to create a new community

Designing smart cities we want to live in

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.