• Opinion
  • December 11, 2018
  • 12 minutes
  • 1

Approaches to “smart cities” must get smarter — here’s five ways to improve

Opinion: We see patterns in repeat failures to meet expectations

This piece was written by Marni Wilhite, head of product and lead of the Office of Design & Delivery at the City of Austin, and Ben Guhin, head of design & technology policy at the City of Austin. For more like this, see our cities newsfeed.

As leaders in design and technology at the City of Austin, we’ve participated in hundreds of conversations, collaborations and procurements related to “smart cities.” These efforts seek to improve how we use data and technology, how we engage our community members and how we work across silos to modernise infrastructure and improve services for residents.

Unfortunately, “smart city” efforts often fail to meet these expectations, and we’re seeing patterns among these failures. As civil servants, it’s our responsibility to address these patterns, and we urge leaders and practitioners to consider changes in these five areas:

1. The outsourcing of expertise

We have failed to invest in building and supporting technology expertise within our cities. The result is an increasing reliance on external consultants and individual vendors to make technology decisions for us, sometimes with significant conflicts of interest. For example, see the recent case in Philadelphia in which the city paid a vendor to select itself for a $7.2m contract.

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Mike Bracken and Andrew Greenway, founders of the UK’s Government Digital Service, describe this challenge in a recent report for the International Development Bank:
“Many of the skills needed for digital transformation of government are not new… Unfortunately, as these skills are outsourced, knowledge bleeds out of the institution, with public bodies becoming progressively less well informed buyers or hirers of specialists.”

Fortunately, national programs like the Government Digital Service in the UK and 18F in the US have demonstrated that we can reverse this trend. Modelling their success, we launched a new approach to recruiting, hiring and service delivery at the City of Austin in 2016, which has hired over 55 specialists in service design, product management and software development to serve within government, most coming from the private sector.

These specialists work alongside career civil servants, forming multidisciplinary teams that are capable of both understanding the complexity of public sector problems and delivering solutions to them.

2. Vendor lock-in

We need to change our approach to working with technology vendors. Many of us have caught on to praising words like “agile” and “lean,” but continue to select technology through lengthy processes of assembling stakeholders, collecting hundreds of “requirements,” developing Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and expecting a single vendor to solve all of our stakeholder requests through an inevitably over-promising “platform.” More on this here.

This is not necessarily the fault of the vendor community — they’re responding to what we keep asking for. Unfortunately, what we’re asking for isn’t reasonable, effective, or sustainable.

We can break our technology requests into smaller component parts

But there is a better way! With the right expertise, we can break our technology requests into smaller component parts. For example, we’ve started building the future of austin.gov with a commitment to modular architecture, meaning that the individual components supporting our digital services (content management, payments, forms, maps) rely on independent, replaceable technologies.

With this architecture, we aren’t locked in to any vendor or technology, and vendors can view our source code online to see how they might integrate and compete for our business. If a company breaks its contract for supporting certain features or chooses to raise its pricing overnight, we can easily switch them out with one of their competitors.

3. “Zero-cost” pilots

A large vendor wants to work with your city to pilot one of their new “smart city” technologies on city infrastructure at no cost to you. What a great deal!

But take a second to think through the following questions:

  1. How many hours will city staff spend to manage the approvals, contracts, permits, oversight and cross-department communications to manage this “zero-cost” pilot?
  2. What opportunities are you missing by using your staff and infrastructure to pilot this technology instead of doing something else?
  3. What advantages are you giving to this vendor by piloting their technology on city infrastructure in advance of all of their competitors?

We’ve started referring to these offers as “zero-dollar” pilots instead of “zero-cost” because, upon reflection, they come at a significant cost to our city and our vendor community.

To level the playing field for smaller businesses and start-ups, we’re interested in providing grants for the most qualified businesses to be paid to participate in pilots, opening new opportunities to firms that can’t afford to work without compensation.

4. Failure to negotiate

In large and mid-size cities, you’re spending millions on technology contracts in a given year, with additional impact if you share contracts across cities. This translates to significant negotiation power, which we often fail to exercise for the benefit of our residents.

Negotiation isn’t just about pricing. Many “smart city” vendors are excited to pilot new solutions in our downtowns and other areas with high-income, high-revenue customers, but the benefits of new technologies should not be restricted to our wealthiest residents.

For example, the City of San Jose, California introduced a tiered pricing structure for broadband providers depending on whether they serve the entire city instead of specific areas. The program also supports a $24m+ “digital inclusion fund” to close the digital divide for low income and vulnerable populations.

In times of increasing inequality, the smartest cities will take additional steps to lift all boats

We would love to see these conversations take a more prominent role in “smart city” awards and conferences. In times of increasing inequality, the smartest cities will take additional steps to lift all boats.

5. Insufficient curiosity, courage and joy

In our work in government and in the private sector, we’ve found that projects are most successful when pursued in a spirit of curiosity, creative courage and joy. Have questions? Ask them! Not an expert in this area? Let’s bring one in!

In many “smart city” conversations, this spirit is challenged by behaviours of certainty, groupthink and an anxious fear of missing out. It’s challenged by vendors who are certain that their solution is best for every situation, civil servants who aren’t empowered to challenge long-standing norms and an overwhelming urgency that we need to “just do something” in order to keep up with other cities.

These behaviours are holding back our potential to build the cities of the future. We need to foster a culture where we can put our residents first, where staff can be excited to question how they’re thinking and where leaders and managers continually support our ability to learn, share and adapt.

On our teams in Austin, this takes several forms. We’ve designed interview questions to evaluate candidates on our values which include “default to action,” “ask for help,” and “strong opinions, loosely held.” We openly review our work in bi-weekly “sprint reviews” with team members, stakeholders and anyone interested in learning more. We test solutions early and often with residents across the city, bringing our stakeholders along for the experience. Whenever possible, we provide snacks.

Our problems will continue to change over time, so our solutions also need to change over time

In pursuit of a smarter approach

There is no single app, partnership, or technology that will make your city the smartest city. Our problems will continue to change over time, so our solutions also need to change over time.

This means that the best solutions usually won’t have an ocean of salespeople advocating for them, they won’t offer free meals or splashy conferences and they won’t claim to be able to solve all of your problems in a matter of months. You should be very skeptical about anything that does.

In our experience, the best investments — modular architectures, shared standards and diverse internal expertise — are those that can grow and adapt with the needs of our communities. The first step in getting there is fostering a culture where we can be open and accepting of what we’re good at and how we might need to grow, both as individuals and as cities. — Marni Wilhite & Ben Guhin

Credit to Dan Sheldon’s “Government IT Self-Harm Playbook” for inspiring this list, and our colleagues and friends who have contributed to this work, including Daniel Honker, Jill Goodman, John Speirs, Elaine Nicholson, Chris Weema, Karla Taylor, Angela Hanson, Mark Headd and Indy Johar.

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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