Seven ways to a Smart City government

Written by Rob Aalders There is a lot of discussion about the “smart city”. There are critics, like Adam Greenfield, Dan Hill and Anthony Townsend (Hill and Townsend will be speaking at the Smart City Event), who claim that the smart city has become a marketing concept adopted by big...

Written by Rob Aalders

There is a lot of discussion about the “smart city”. There are critics, like Adam Greenfield, Dan Hill and Anthony Townsend (Hill and Townsend will be speaking at the Smart City Event), who claim that the smart city has become a marketing concept adopted by big firms. These firms are interested in finding new markets for existing products and services. They are reframing existing business propositions for technologies that are not particularly urbane. You put a smart city or big data label on it and there you go.

In his book Smart Cities, Townsend says that the real “smart” city of the future cannot and should not merely be a reflection of what large technology companies would like to sell to local governments. Many systems and plans of big firms are built upon the status quo of a local government being the pivotal point in the city. You can question though, whether the governance model of today is a mature model? Is this model a firm standing fact? Or can it perhaps be subject to change?

Local government needs to change

What we do see, it that the share economy and network economy scream for a local government that changes its ways of working.  An article on Bloomberg described the clash between government and share economy in New York as: “Here’s the problem: most tax and safety rules were designed for industries that don’t operate on a small scale: hotel chains, rental car companies with massive fleets, brick-and-mortar retailers. These regulations are ill equipped to deal with shared consumption, or micro-renting, or whatever you want to call it.” The Wallstreet Journal quoted Uber’s head of France about the taxi-crisis that’s now going on in cities around Europe: “It’s an effort by the government to slow down innovation to preserve the interests of traditional companies.” Only recently the courts in Brussels and Berlin limited Uber-activities.

Innovation needs to take place, but the government is not the first place you would think of when it comes down to innovation. Many civil servants aren’t aware of the ongoing changes in society and lack the knowledge of technology. That’s one of the key findings in a recent research done by the New Local Government Network in the UK. Nevertheless a local government should know about technology and have the skills to put them to use.  Digital technology has the potential to create better services and this does happen. In the UK, gov.uk is an initiative that turned the national government’s digital presence around. That resulted not only in better websites and information, but also in huge savings. Woops, savings? That sounds awesome, in a time of budget cuts doesn’t it?

Not gradually but radically

As citizens and companies change fast, due to its nature, the government is rather slow. This mastodon needs to become an ice dancer. A city clearly needs to become more agile and creative. But what can a municipality do facilitate that process? A number of cities around the world have started some helpful initiatives, including::

  1. Chief Innovation Officer (CIO)– more and more cities are getting a CIO. This is someone who stimulates and manages innovation across city departments, and connects to universities, community, businesses, and the technology community. CIOs work on creating unique and creative solutions to civic challenges.
  2. Prototyping – encourage, support and facilitate experimenting. Trialing ideas using quicker, cheaper, reversible trials for early discussion, measurement & observation. Beta Projects and Urban Mechanics are examples of initiatives where a city has created a way for experimental services.
  3. Procurement –  do not stick to the traditional partners. Citymart is one example of a platform that takes advantage of the power of a network. Via Citymart you can obtain services you otherwise will be unlikely to find.
  4. Cooperation – take a look at platforms like Europe Commons, work together with SMEs and other cities. Encourage young entrepreneurs into your organization with tools like the entrepreneur in resident program in San Francisco.
  5. Digital skills – invest in your people and support innovative ideas. Civil servants need to get the opportunity to acquire digital skills.
  6. Change Culture – change is not going to happen in the current climate of organization. Lower control, stop being risk averse and acknowledge that innovation comes from outside. Often innovative projects are seen as ”nice-to-have”, instead they should be regarded as fundamental.
  7. Enable communities – resources are less and less in the hands of the government. Support your citizens in creating the sharing economy. Remove barriers and promote this new type of society.

The local government will not become a hotspot for innovation, but it should no longer lag behind society. A municipality should change its way of working today. Not gradually but radically.

Success stories

Well, this sounds like changing the local government will make it all happen. It does need to change fast, but there is no guarantee for great results. In the past months I have heard numerous success stories about active citizens and entrepreneurs. A city opens up its data (open data) and suddenly new services arise. This is fantastic. What these stories have in common is that they take place in major cities such as London and San Francisco, who boast a large and vibrant tech community.  It is these communities that can help turn open data into useful services for all local citizens. It is questionable whether the same will happen that easily in smaller cities without such a community. Sure, they might provide some services, but not the whole stack. Here lies a role for the local and national government, to stimulate these efforts and share solutions.

The smart city as technology changing the urban landscape is not something new. The wave of technology enabling smaller scales of companies, active citizens, social, climate, economic and demographic change is. The relationship between the local government, citizens, large companies and small companies is changing. It’s an opportunity for a happier and healthier city, as well for cost savings. For every city the smart city will be different. But for all, the key to becoming a smart city is to facilitate and stimulate new ways of working. The smart city is about the design of social and economic processes with technology as an enabler and driver of change.


About Rob Aalders

Rob Aalders is founder of R.A.U.M. an agency for smart city strategies. It is specialized on urban media to make the smart city visible. R.A.U.M. also creates projects for building vibrant startup communities. Besides R.A.U.M. Rob works for the city of Heerlen (NL) on Creative Industries and Smart City developments.

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