Aerial view of people walking in a crosswalk

The 9th year of the Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC), held in Barcelona from November 1921, did not disappoint. In fact, after nine years of attending, I’m surprised each year at how the event continues to grow, improve, and remain exciting. The numbers suggest that I’m not alone in finding value in the conference as it expands by double digits each year. This year the expo had almost 25,000 attendees, and over 1,000 exhibitors, with 700 cities from 146 countries represented.

With a busy four days including a Microsoft pre-event, conference sessions, side events, and an expo floor that is incredibly dynamic, there is a lot to process. Here are my two big take-aways from the event:

A strong ecosystem of partners is essential

While there were certainly exhibits highlighting a single solution or service, and a good set of smaller and newer companies, most of the exhibits showed an ecosystem of partners providing smart city solutions. The country and city booths hosted multiple suppliers, demonstrating that this isn’t a market where providers can go it alone or provide all the required services. The solution suppliers also hosted booths with their partners; for example, Microsoft’s booth showcased a dozen partners to help cities innovate now for the smart city of tomorrow. This necessary ecosystem approach addresses the complexity and variety of the solutions needed for smart cities – from lighting to water and waste to transportation – and attempts to make security, interoperability, and scalability more feasible. The fact is that a supplier’s partner ecosystem is an essential component of their offering and cities should research carefully the relationships suppliers have in place.

This might be the reason that the expo floor itself, and less so the conference sessions, is the heart of the action. Beyond the networking events held in the booths themselves (Bavaria had a mini-Oktoberfest complete with folk music and beer and pretzels), exhibitors also had seating areas for side presentations and demonstrations. This enabled attendees to catch flavors of the multitude of topics important in smart cities such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and AR/VR.

Non-technical issues must be proactively addressed

The complaint of previous years from cities was that vendors were still too focused on selling products and weren’t listening to the business challenges and desired outcomes cities wanted. This has changed. Suppliers are now clearly connecting products and services to outcomes, and the conversation is focused on the key areas of social inclusivity, safety, and sustainability and resilience. However, there are other factors that are challenging implementations, especially when it comes to scaling solutions beyond smaller pilots or test cases. As discussed in depth in this white paper, smart cities are, at their core, a holistic strategy to apply digital technologies and technology innovation to continually enhance experiences, streamline and automate processes, and deliver value. A holistic strategy goes beyond the technology itself to include:

  • Engaging and connecting with citizens with a focus on the needs of the community.
  • Modernizing the government workplace and having an empowered workforce.
  • Enhancing government services by leveraging technology and data to operate more efficiently and effectively.
  • Managing risk as the enterprise continuously learns and adapts.
  • Developing new governance and cultural models, supported by updated policies.

IDC’s research shows that cities find these non-technical aspects very challenging and 64 percent of cities globally are digitally distraught, that is lacking foundational tools to move in a determined, city-wide process to digital transformation. And despite the growth in the Expo itself, the pace of municipal transformation moves at the pace of traditional government procurement. This results in departments and agencies deploying point solutions that may be highly successful, but that ultimately generate future integration challenges, reinforce silos, and hide the true cost of ownership.

Cities now have to move proactively to address these areas that enable smart cities, such as internal skills and employee capacity, policies and governance models, collaborative cultures that can withstand changes in elected leadership, and finding trusted partners that have the ecosystem in place to support the varied needs of a city. Only then will cities be able to build true smart cities of the future.

To learn how cities can create a solid strategy for digital transformation, download the IDC white paper “Building Smart Communities for the Future”, sponsored by Microsoft.