Smart cities: meeting citizen expectations

While the pace of urbanization has showed signs of slowing down in some regions, globally there seems to be no end to the trend. More than 54% of humans currently live in cities, a number that is expected to rise to 66% by the year 2050. This equates to an additional 2.5 billion city inhabitants over the next three decades.

The need for smart cities

To keep pace with this growth, new solutions in environmental, social, and economic sustainability are needed. Enter, the smart city.

Smart cities use Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to create infrastructure that enables the development of sustainable practices and optimized usage of limited resources. This ICT backbone is made of a network of connected hardware that gathers and wirelessly transmits data. This data is then analyzed and managed in real-time to provide insights to municipalities, private businesses, and citizens.

A vision of the future

Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto’s Chief Information Officer from 2011 to 2018, spoke of the gap between what citizens expect and what government delivers. While people have become used to friction-less digital experiences elsewhere in their lives, they still see queuing in a municipal office as the norm for interacting with government.

The California city thus set itself the goal of using technology to meet the expectations of its connected citizenry. In simple terms, this meant making government smartphone-friendly.

The city identified a set of guidelines to drive this vision:

  • Digital innovation would be fundamental to answering the needs of citizens.
  • Project success would require buy-in and support from the mayor and city council.
  • Due to its limited size and resources, the city would have to establish partnerships outside of government.

Change through empowerment

To achieve their vision, Reichental and the city leaned into the third guideline and created an environment in which citizens and private businesses could act. By doing so, rapid innovation at scale became possible despite limited resources.

One such example was how the city solved the need for a solution that could help citizens track the status of permit applications. Developing a solution itself would likely have cost the city over $100 000 and taken at least a year and a half. But, by making the permit data freely available, a third-party company was able to develop an app quickly and efficiently.

Reichental also identified the second-order benefits of this approach: “If you’re waiting for government, you’ll be waiting a long time. But if you are smart and you can use data, you can not only solve a very big problem for every city in the world; you can create jobs. This is about economic opportunity too.”

Success at scale

Thanks to this approach, Palo Alto’s local government was able to move more than 60 of it’s platforms online. These include an eBook and audiobook library where books can be borrowed online, an app for reporting non-urgent crimes, and one for reporting refuse on the streets. All platforms include tracking of reported issues and the ability for citizens to rate the service.

While the focus was on projects that represented the highest return, the city also undertook several experimental projects including chatbots that could respond to citizens’ question online and a parking and traffic monitoring system.

What does the future of smart cities look like?

Beyond the success already achieved through the digital transfomation of the city, Reichental identified three key areas of opportunity for further improvement:

  • The impact of self-driving cars on cities and their organization
  • The solar energy revolution and its implications for government and business
  • The efficiencies made possible through the use of AI and machine learning

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