a man standing in front of a building

The term “smart city” is a simple phrase that encompasses a broad and complex set of digital transformation initiatives and programs. Such programs need to include modern citizen services, operational automation, intelligent management of infrastructure and utilities, and new capabilities to improve transportation and communication. Microsoft is helping to lead the way at this year’s Smart City Expo World Congress 2019.

That said, immediate action is needed to prepare for the smart city of the future. According to the United Nations, 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. This worldwide “urban shift” is creating the pressure for governments to improve the way cities serve residents, either by optimizing the physical environment or improving the virtual capabilities of government.

As a former government Chief Information Officer with almost two decades of public sector leadership experience, I have learned that one of the most difficult parts of your transformation journey is developing the trust needed to sustain a long-term effort, especially when there are multiple projects that all compete for limited resources and funding. To be sustainable over the long-term, your smart city program needs to garner this trust from citizens, policymakers, government leaders, and community stakeholders.

This trust is earned by delivering early success with proven results. Therefore, initial projects must demonstrate true value. For this reason, I strongly advise creating a plan that starts with a limited number of targeted, tactical, high-value projects. These projects should advance the long-term architecture, but also create immediate visible success. Succeeding at valuable tactical projects is the “make-it-real” approach you need to realize your digital transformation vision.

While decisions about which projects to pursue depend on local priorities and goals, I would confidently recommend considering opportunities that align with these three categories:

1) Improve accessibility for citizen services.  Studies performed by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that 19 percent of all people have some kind of permanent physical or cognitive disability, over 46 percent of people over 60 years of age have a disability, and up to 68 percent of people may be experiencing a temporary disability at any given time. Public healthcare, child welfare, housing assistance, mental health counseling, or criminal justice interactions are services explicitly designed to serve disadvantaged or at-risk populations who by definition may have short-term or permanent challenges associated with physical abilities, mental capabilities, emotional stress, or communication barriers. Undertaking a comprehensive citizen service initiative focused on digital accessibility provides an immediate positive outcome that can revolutionize the quality of life afforded to citizens.

2) Improve traditional operations through data analytics.  Even after implementing a “digital” service, many government functions remain tethered to operating models that require people to read data, reports, forms, or documents. While governments have a massive amount of data, 47 percent of that data is not machine-readable and cannot leverage digital transformation platforms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). Traditional government operations should be re-examined, seeking opportunities to improve data management practices. Smart cities will digitize operations that involve manual intervention and decisions, especially focused on those operations that impact citizen interactions. Common targets could be permit or license processing, basic issue reporting, infrastructure monitoring, and routine customer service inquiries. In addition, new opportunities that allow complex data to be analyzed and acted upon to improve quality of life could also be considered, like real-time optimization of traffic flow, maintenance work, city parking, and public lighting.

3) Target a community stakeholder opportunity.  The great thing about a smart city is that other stakeholders want you to succeed! According to several recent studies, an urban shift will put stress on existing systems that serve local economic development, job creation, waste management, power and water delivery systems, housing quality, health, and transportation networks. As a result, regional partners that will want to engage and help include major businesses, private shipping and transportation companies, utility districts, other regional governments, large hospitals, and special interest groups. A smart city should embrace other stakeholders that have an interest in collaborating to solve challenges and improve the quality of life for city residents. These partners may have funds to invest, or be willing to promote and champion a solution, and seek nothing more than the chance to participate and collaborate on ways to transform city living. Improvements to functions like business tax management, urban sustainability, transportation coordination, and elderly care are outcomes that are key to a smart city vision, and for which there are likely community partners willing to engage, collaboration, champion, and support your initial efforts.

“Smart cities” represent a global initiative, with benefits to be learned by everyone. Let’s continue to engage in these conversations! Stop by the Microsoft Booth at Smart City Expo World Congress 2019, in Barcelona, Spain Nov 19 – 21, to continue the discussion.