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Smart Cities and the Promise of Innovation in Public Services
Jon Glasco10. April 20199 min read

Smart Cities and the Promise of Innovation in Public Services

There was a time when bells in town squares warned citizens of impending danger. Today, the bells ring again in the form of studies and media reports with warnings about urban problems that plague modern cities and resist solutions. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people move to cities in pursuit of a higher quality of life. This is the story of cities: Citizens with big expectations versus the endurance of big city problems. It is a still-unfolding story with numerous villains: social inequality, traffic congestion, pollution, crime, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, aging infrastructure, public service shortfalls.

The protagonist in this story is a smart city innovator. In local government, this is someone with the title of Chief Digital Officer, Chief Innovation Officer or Smart City Program Manager. The smart city innovator is an optimist and creative problem solver with a vision of transforming a city. A transformation with innovative public services that make a difference.

How does the story unfold? The answer depends on whether the smart city innovator succeeds in:

  • Creating a smart city ecosystem
  • Facilitating urban innovation and collaboration
  • Guiding digital transformation
  • Delivering quality-of-life benefits

Creating a Smart City Ecosystem

Throughout the world, smart city innovators strive to deploy services and solutions which address urgent urban problems and improve quality of life. However, many cities are under austerity and efficiency pressures. They must "do more with less". The smart city innovator recognizes not all public sector services can or should be developed entirely within government. This is where a smart city ecosystem enters the story. Making decisions about innovation in cities is changing from a rigid, centralized model to a more open, shared approach involving ecosystem partners. 

Creating the ecosystem involves the development of partnerships with high-tech startups, established companies, universities and research institutes which offer skills and knowledge required in smart city projects. It may require a commitment to "research and design models that center around collective intelligence, fully exploiting the opinions, knowledge and experience of everyone in the community". It may focus on nurturing local technology clusters as a means to develop integrated urban solutions. Other ecosystem measures include collaboration pacts with citizens and open data ventures with entrepreneurs. The growing list of more than 800 innovations in the Global Smart City Network and Community of bee smart city exemplifies the range and diversity of services and solutions developed by private and public sector innovators.

Facilitating Urban Innovation and Collaboration

The development of smart city services requires facilitating a process of innovation and collaboration which yields strengths in solving urban problems. Here are examples of the strengths smart cities need.

Skills in Opportunity Assessment

The smart city innovator is an idea generator and facilitator who must identify and select opportunities from a wide range of potential solutions. As described in a study from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, opportunities for smart city services originate from multiple sources such as civic engagement, events and hackathons; open data plans and city directives; competition for awards and grants; and knowledge sharing with partner cities. Other ideas may emerge from:

  • Citizens, local businesses, technology vendors, entrepreneurs, innovation labs, crowdsourcing, university research and trials of civic technologies
  • Threats to public health, safety, housing, the environment, infrastructure, sustainability and other quality-of-life dimensions
  • Disruptive external forces (such as those now evident in the "Uberization" of urban transport and the "AirBnB effect" in housing and tourist accommodation)
  • Persistent urban problems and conflicts 
  • Changes in urban demographics and societal needs

Understanding Citizen Segments

Although cities make decisions on many aspects of urban life, they often "struggle to provide services to all segments of society, especially when large or demographically diverse areas are involved". Designing and deploying innovative public services is not simply a matter of digitizing existing city services. This often leads to a digital service designed for the mass population—the one-size-fits-all approach which neglects variations and unique needs in citizen segments. To adopt an online public service, citizens expect the same utility and quality of digital services they enjoy in their everyday lives. Consider the millennial generation. "Due to this generation's strength in driving regional economic vitality directly and indirectly, it is in the best interests of city planners to understand the preferences of millennials."

Citizens are accustomed to digital services that appeal to specific interests and needs. "Local governments are under pressure to demonstrate they can pro-actively identify customer needs and demonstrate how those needs are being met." Through civic engagement, user surveys, market research and data analytics, cities have opportunities to increase their understanding of citizen segments, manage the data on segments as a digital asset and add value in public services innovation.

Data-Smart City Solutions, an initiative of the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, serves as a central resource for innovation in government and provides a wide range of civic data and data analytics tools.

Innovation Capacity and Culture

Local governments must ensure they have sufficient innovation capacity, including the  "technical, policy, and management skills to create and implement new policies, governance structures and applications to provide better city services." Smart cities create multidisciplinary teams with authority and capability to overcome barriers and develop innovation capacity.

Creating and securing approval of new service concepts demands a culture of innovation. Smart city innovators are effective in facilitating an innovative culture, which includes the collective mindset to enable partnering, exploratory thinking, experimentation, learning from failure and taking iterative steps toward the creation and funding of new services.

Persuasive and Agile Smart City Planning

Smart cities need a strategic plan which is compelling and agile. To build trust, the strategy should clarify how smart city projects and services enable improvements in quality of life, urban sustainability and local government performance. The plan needs to (a) demonstrate how the city will ensure adequate resources are available for innovation, (b) include estimates of smart city benefits versus costs, and (c) identify agile contingency measures in the event of disruptive trends or ecosystem gaps.

Collaboration, Partnering and Asset Sharing

According to the World Economic Forum, local governments have many roles to play in collaboration and co-creation of public services by:

  • Providing a medium to promote knowledge sharing, while encouraging entrepreneurs and local companies to invest in urban solutions and services
  • Facilitating idea generation on how to share information and other assets with local businesses, entrepreneurs and social innovators
  • Enabling the participation of citizens and civic groups
  • Partnering with universities, foundations and non-profit entities
  • Collaborating in regional and national smart city programs 

In the EU, the European Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) fosters development among cities, partners and other stakeholders. Cities participating in EIP-SCC projects work in a collaborative mode to demonstrate how new processes, technology solutions and innovative business models "transform urban environments into smarter and more sustainable places".

Guiding Digital Transformation

A vision of success in smart city services innovation is essentially a vision of digital transformation. To judge by thought leader research, it is an understatement to say digital transformation is a risky endeavor. Most research indicates at least 70 percent of digital transformation initiatives fail. According to IDC, navigating the perilous path from digital resistance to digital transformation entails a willingness to "experiment with new technologies, challenge the norms of the business model and make bold bets when the time is right".

A BCG study claims government entities "must run the transformation like a business". Service designers in the public sector should "overhaul the digital journey of high-priority services from end to end and strive to eliminate all mandatory paper forms, phone calls, and non-digital interactions."

A "willingness to make bold bets" does not imply a smart city innovator depends on radical innovation or high-risk service design projects. Other options are to search for proven solutions and find ways to experiment with models and pilot projects. OrganiCity is an urban experimentation service designed to help citizens, businesses and government work together in developing digital solutions. The OrganiCity Playbook is a guide for smart cities starting on the path toward transformation.

Delivering Quality-of-Life Benefits

The digital divide and variations in quality of life affect how people interact with local government. In many situations, citizens with low quality of life need more from local government and public services than those who enjoy high quality of life.

According to a McKinsey study, cities can achieve measurable quality-of-life improvements through smart city initiatives in healthcare, security, intelligent mobility, energy, waste management and digital citizen services.

“As people throughout the world—from less-developed regions to the most advanced nations—become more technology-aware, citizens have high expectations for the public sector to facilitate a digital, interactive society that adds value." While trying to add value, the smart city innovator is aware the digital divide acts as a barrier to smart city access for some members of society. As reported by the European Commission, an estimated 44 per cent of EU citizens do not have basic digital skills, and 15 per cent of Europeans do not have access to the Internet.

Therefore, the smart city innovator faces one of the problems of modern cities. Because of the digital divide, citizens without sufficient access to smart devices, broadband networks, wireless connectivity and other technologies derive fewer benefits from quality-of-life improvements enabled by digital solutions. But the digital divide is only part of the problem. A recent article from Equal Times refers to sociologist Stefano de Marco whose research reveals the barrier of digital inequality and how this differs from the digital divide: "The divide marks the difference between those who have access to the Internet and those who do not, whereas inequality is related to its use." Digital inequality means that a subset of the online population does not take full advantage of services such as telelearning, e-health, telecommuting, e-government, mobile banking and journey planning. Local governments need to develop smart city solutions which continue closing the digital divide and digital equality gap and delivering quality-of-life benefits.


When planning innovative public services, cities should focus on outcomes, including segment-specific outcomes, with high expected value. By serving as visionaries, facilitators and communicators, smart city innovators have opportunities to develop and promote new services valued by citizens in all corners of society. However, it is too early for a final scene in the smart city story. After all, the story has a long way to go.

Creating a Smart City Ecosystem to support digital transformation is one of the most challenging tasks of our time. With the global smart city network and community, bee smart city provides a premier resource to transfer knowledge on building the smart city ecosystem, featuring hundreds of solutions that have been successfully implemented in cities and communities around the globe. Join the community of thousands of smart city enthusiasts and grow your expertise and network!



Jon Glasco

Jon Glasco is a freelance consultant and writer focused on innovation in smart cities and smart urban mobility. He has experience in executive and consulting roles in the telecommunications, mobile operator, public transport, government and professional service sectors. Jon holds an MBA and Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering.