Around the world, there are many examples of cities evolving into smart cities. Many motivations may drive this trend, but a commonly quoted objective is to improve the overall livability of the city, effectively addressing urbanization issues and working to become a more efficient and sustainable city.
Although this trend may be driven by a desire to remain relevant at a global or regional level, without taking a step back and understanding the complexities around smart-city developments, there is a real risk that the city will be unable to achieve its overall objectives.
Some characteristics of a smart city are inherently interconnected, and a structured and iterative approach is essential to ensure that all dimensions are addressed and are complementary. Multiple stakeholders are involved in ensuring the success of a smart city, making it necessary for a governance framework to be established as early as possible in the process.
Here we believe that smart-city governance provides a structured approach to considering, addressing, and evolving the multidimensional aspects of a smart city, enabling the overall smart-city ecosystem to develop successfully.
The basis for a smart city is first established by defining the smart-city vision and mission, which help focus all activities on achieving both current and future aspirations. These aspirations should be cascaded into a series of true needs and objectives, not to be confused with perceived needs. The objectives may relate to a variety of goals, such as to improve livability, generate revenue, encourage new business, bring efficiencies, or reach sustainability targets. Establishing clear and concise objectives is an essential step in developing a smart-city governance framework.
In Houston, Texas, a series of smart-city initiatives contribute to the city’s resilience, including, most recently, COVID-19–related initiatives such as digital contact tracing to pinpoint community spread more rapidly. These initiatives were established thanks to a clearly defined objective to contain and limit the spread of COVID-19. Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, commented:
Technology is not for technology’s sake. You have to recognize what your needs are and what you want your predetermined objective to be. In the smart city’s old paradigm, we were locked into one mode of thinking, addressing one area of need. But, now, during the pandemic, you can see other things, you can go in several directions. You are not stuck on one track. This is why we have been able to do so much more in a shorter period of time.”
Once a city has established clear and structured objectives, it has a basis upon which to explore and develop a smart city using a structured governance framework. One must consider many aspects to develop a smart city, many of which are interdependent and require multiple iterations to ensure that they are coordinated and complementary. In this brief, we have grouped the major aspects into four main pillars.
Defining the contextual boundaries of the smart city is vital to its success. Whether restricted to specific industries or sectors or to geographic boundaries, the extent of the smart city should be determined to provide a framework upon which to explore the other pillars. For example, if an objective is to improve public transport ridership, the extent could be focused on smart parking solutions that encourage public transport usage, and that would be concentrated in areas that are most relevant, such as a crowded city center or outlying districts with good public transport connections.
A smart solution or service may require a different set of ownership considerations than traditional infrastructure. We must look past just the service and asset to the data ownership and the level of control desired or allowed by the service owner. For example, smart cities typically rely on data to effectively serve their objectives, which brings the question of digital sovereignty. The way in which data and their condition of circulation, conservation, and interpretation can become a strategic advantage. Smart-city officials need to be aware of the influence of digital platforms, such as GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) and BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi), and those platforms’ perceived monopolies. Dependence on these companies can represent a risk; thus, ownership becomes an important topic to address and resolve.
For cities looking to upgrade their infrastructure with technology, paying for these projects presents a major challenge in the implementation of these smart-city solutions on a large scale. Cities need to identify business models that provide a vehicle that makes the introduction of a smart-city solution viable and financeable. It may be necessary to phase a deployment such that revenue-generating or OPEX-reducing initiatives are implemented first, in order to help finance other initiatives. The financing type depends on the type of project, costs, ownership model, method of repayment, and risk aversion of the financial bodies.
Building a successful smart city requires collaboration between committed individuals, city governments, and private organizations. A channel for interaction between these stakeholders is important in the smart-city ecosystem to facilitate communication, engagement, and collaboration. Considering the previous pillars, stakeholder engagement is important in confirming the extent of the smart city and the ownership model and in exploring and agreeing on the vehicle for financing the initiatives.
To deliver smart-city governance that is aligned with their vision and missions, authorities need to ensure that they have an appropriate organizational structure to address this complex issue. Cities such as London and Vienna, both successful smart cities, have set up specific central entities responsible for developing strategies around their smart-city initiatives. Because all decisions are centralized, they encompass all projects around the smart city. Authorities should consider setting up or nominating an entity to oversee the governance process. This entity would define and manage the development and relations between the pillars in a comprehensive and organized manner.
Without a structured and comprehensive approach, there is a risk the city may evolve with a collection of solutions or services operating independently and inefficiently without focus or overall purpose. Smart City governance presents a framework upon which to develop the city’s aspirations comprehensively and cohesively, addressing all dimensions to realize the goals of the smart city.