Massimiliano Claps
Max Claps (Research Director, IDC Government Insights)

Last week I attended my fourth Smart Cities Expo World Congress (SCEWC). This year conference had a bold theme: “Cities Made of Dreams”. But for the first time, the conference was less about the art-of-the-possible from a technology standpoint and more about achieving better outcomes in terms of safety and security, mobility, environmental sustainability, health and social care and other services at scale.

In fact, cities around the globe have been dipping their toes into smart cities initiatives and trying new technologies for almost ten years, but outcomes were underwhelming. The result was often a plethora of fragmented pilot projects that earned an award at SCEWC or at some other event but did not scale. These pilots did not scale from a corridor or neighborhood to the entire city. They excluded segments of the resident population from the intended benefits. They did not allow tech suppliers to easily re-sell the same capabilities to other cities, thus generate the solid basis of revenues that can be re-invested in further innovation. In fact, IDC predicts that still “In 2020, 10–30% of Smart City IoT projects will fail to launch or scale due to ill-defined outcomes or KPIs, poor understanding of vendor offerings, and/or inadequate funding and stakeholder engagement.”

But, the conversations I had at SCEWC 2019 are encouraging. They indicate that both tech suppliers and cities start to understand how to cross the chasm between early pilots and a more mature implementations that realize the benefits of digital as an accelerator for city transformation. Key inflection points that came out in many conversations include:

  • The need to make inclusiveness a top priority of smart cities programs.
  • The need to move from whole-of-city vision to use case centric, outcome-oriented strategic action plans and execution.
  • The end of an all-encompassing platform as the silver bullet.

Social inclusion

Cities have come to the realization that digital transformation is a great opportunity to improve quality of service but is also a risk in terms of excluding certain segments of the population. It is a risk because parts of the population are not digitally literate, so they need an alternative to digital channels. And they do not fully understand the ramifications of their personal data being collected by the city government and other ecosystem players, such as utilities, telcos and transportation companies. So, forward-thinking city leaders are not pursuing “an app for everything” or “digital-only” strategy anymore, but rather a more holistic omni-channel approach that makes customer convenience the number one priority. And they are working to get data collection consent transparently, including for secondary use of personal data; and to apply the data minimization principle more rigorously.

Digital is also a risk, because smart technologies could benefit only certain groups. For example, micromobility service apps may not help low density suburbs that are not profitable for scooter and bike sharing companies. In a conversation with a European city, we discussed how the integration of health and social care services require using multiple avenues to reach the most vulnerable residents, such as elderly living alone. Also, the collection of massive amounts of data and application of machine learning algorithms creates the ability for the city ecosystem to infringe on individuals’ freedom to choose what services to use and how, because service providers can now proactively offer a pre-selected set of “personalized” options. The same data management and advanced analytics tools create the risk of introducing an unknown bias, because the data set does not accurately reflect the context of everyone or cannot explain why the machine made a certain prediction or recommendation.

Tech suppliers are responding to the cities’ need by embracing the concept of the social impact of their digital solutions, because it helps them build a more human brand and creates a sense of purpose for employees.

Use case-centric, outcome-oriented program execution

Cities have also matured in terms of strategic goals that they set for themselves. Taking a whole-of-city approach may be viable in terms of long-term smart cities vision, but it is too big to handle when it comes to designing a strategic implementation plan and executing the programs that such a plan includes. Programs must be divided into projects that deliver quick wins and capabilities must be continuously fine-tuned, so that the business case for scaling for the whole-of-city is sustainable from the resource perspective. The way to balance the long-term vision with the short-term benefit realization is to focus on specific use cases and bring the ecosystem together by outlining the value for all participants. For example, by projecting the value of a new transport route to serve a low-density neighborhood in terms of tickets/fees for the operator, licensing and permitting for the city if the route is contracted out to a demand-based transit provider, safer pedestrian and cycling traffic that may drive business for local retailers, the conversation about how to fund the project becomes less controversial. A use-case centric, outcome-oriented approach is vital for brownfield cities that need to lift legacy processes, tools and behaviors into the digital era. But it is also viable for greenfield cities that need anchor use cases to start from.

Tech suppliers are also embracing a more holistic definition of value, including financial return, but also ecosystem engagement that drives longer term innovation, and social outcomes of specific use cases.

The platform is dead… or is it?

Finally, this year SCEWC started to clear some of the hype about the platform. What cities need is a technology architecture strategy and governance that help them increase the return on innovation by understanding which IoT sensor, platform capability and user application is best suited for a given use case, if and how some of the same capabilities can be leveraged across multiple use cases and where there are white spaces that can be filled with open-source tools and in-house development. For example, video cameras may be installed for speed or red-light violation enforcement, but the device itself and the platform and application capabilities underpinning it – including device provisioning and management, data ingestion and pipelining, encryption, containerization for edge applications, anomaly detection and visual analytics – can be reused for traffic monitoring, or, in combination with noise sensors, for crowd monitoring use cases. In a conversation with a city from the Middle East, we discussed how they could cluster city departments and services around three or four city platforms, for example, one for transportation, one for public safety, one for health and social care. Each of these will be tightly knit within their boundaries, but also open to lightweight data integration through API when cross-departmental use cases emerge. Cities that keep searching for the silver bullet platform that can address all existing and future use cases will end up with both shelfware and the need to custom develop solutions for use cases that are very specific to their context.

Tech suppliers are starting to realize that this is an important inflection point, but they need to do a better job at marketing their platforms and identifying the priority use cases. I still sat in too many conversations at SCEWC, where I could not tell the difference between one platform and the other. Platforms have multiple layers, from edge device management and applications, to edge data ingestion and management, from analytics and AI, to visual dashboards, from intelligence embedded in city worker applications to SDKs used to develop citizen apps. Platforms have different anchor points in terms of key data entities, some of them are more focused around events to trigger operational tasks, others are more centered around building a 360° view of the citizen, others still are more geared towards mapping and optimizing resource allocation to deliver services. Platforms have different flavors in terms of the city missions and use cases that they support out of the box, such as mobility, public works, public safety and security, health and social care. With all those attributes, there is plenty of opportunities for vendors to make clear what is the combination of capabilities that make their platform unique.

The quicker cities and tech suppliers embrace these three inflection points, the quicker smart cities solutions will be scaled and deliver positive outcomes for citizens.

To learn more, please contact Max Claps or head over to and drop your details in the form on the top right.

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