What's a Smart City, Anyway? Two Tough Questions from a Skeptical Mayor


What's a Smart City, Anyway?

Two tough questions for an all-star panel of experts from a skeptical (fictional) mayor.

Mayor Sue Smith of Anytown, USA is thinking big about the future of her city. She isn't sure if she needs Anytown to be a "smart city," but she knows she wants to be a model for sustain­abil­ity, efficiency, inclusivity, acces­si­bil­ity. She's got big challenges and big goals—and she’s on the hunt for big ideas. That's why she's summoned a council of multi-disci­pli­nary consultants and tasked them with answering two tough questions.

There's Matt Goss, an energy & facilities expert, who knows how cities' digital networks can be more like the strongest home security systems. Climate resilience leader Lauren Miller understands how breaking down siloes is key to advancing resiliency efforts. Trans­porta­tion planners Davonna Moore and Jacki Murdock know how to tap into their shared experiences with clients' staffing and funding constraints to emphasize the need for proactive—not reactive—investment efforts. Rajan Ray of CDM Smith's digital solutions subsidiary Trinnex is all about using digital-first resiliency to "bounce back" from COVID-19, while program management guru Karen Counes is all about quick hits for conserving resources while creating a favorable environment for citizens to live, work and play. 

Let's hear their ideas.

I want immediate results. What can our city do today that will move the needle tomorrow?

The Energy Expert

Matt Goss

Matt Goss: From an energy and facilities standpoint, the main goal should be to usher in a system that allows the city to be able to capture and collect all of their energy consumption and performance data, allowing them to review via a dashboard or digital system that provides actionable knowledge to make decisions that will make your city run better. Think of it like a home security system for your city—keeping you safe via 24/7 surveil­lance, alerting you to issues before they arise, connecting you to a wider network of resources, and even perhaps performing operational intel­li­gence  to improve effi­cien­cies within your system.  

Of course, this is easier to do today more than ever thanks to the tech­no­log­i­cal advancements and widespread avail­abil­ity of sensors and other data-collection devices. Using this data to prioritize which energy-efficient goals you should focus on is a great first step in the process.  

Resiliency Champion

Lauren MillerLauren Miller: It’s certainly important for leaders to think about their data, but I’d also suggest that they make sure people are talking to each other. With my experience in climate change planning, I know just how crucial it is to have people in different departments talking to each other because climate issues affect every aspect of a city; there are no industry siloes when it comes to the future of our planet.  

Focusing on commu­ni­ca­tion between departments can help decision-makers better understand what resiliency projects they can do that would benefit the largest number of departments. 

Modern Mobility Mastermind

Davonna MooreDavonna Moore: At the operational level, I recommend leaders remove those basic operational barriers that would interfere with technology and innovation.

These don’t have to be huge lifts; I’m talking about small-to-medium-scale changes like curb management and organizing delivery at non-peak times that would allow your city to run more efficiently as well as become more resilient, more equitable, and better poised for future investments. 


Digital Solutions Strategist

Rajan RayRajan Ray: The shift to digital resiliency has been a trend we’ve been tracking for years, but it’s certainly gained momentum with the COVID-19 pandemic and all the cultural, profes­sional and tech­no­log­i­cal shifts that followed in its wake. It’s become crucial for everyone within an orga­ni­za­tional department to “speak the same language” and have access to the same data streams.

I like to think of it as having more eyes on your investments in IT and data management. This will help level the playing field amidst all the competing priorities and resources. Utilities can no longer work in silos—they must have collab­o­ra­tion within their commu­ni­ca­tion networks and work streams for things to run smoothly.  

Trans­porta­tion Planning Pro

Jackie murdockJacki Murdock: I’m a trans­porta­tion planner so, admittedly, I think of everything in terms of process. That’s why I would recommend the mayor conduct an audit as a great first step. This will help decision-makers  understand where they are in the planning process, assess their current and future infra­struc­ture/technology needs, and identify a playbook for further action. We’ve found that it can be partic­u­larly helpful to frame the parameters around what can real­is­ti­cally get done within a mayor’s given term, so anything that can be identified as a “early win” vs. a longer-term goal should also be noted. 

I’d also suggest that the mayor stay vigilant about using that qualitative data to make more inclusive decisions about under­rep­re­sented/underserved groups within the community because a lot of times, those types of measures aren’t accounted for in any of the standard data sets. It’s important to remain sensitive to how to better incorporate equity and inclusion goals within the larger planning process. 

Management Maven

Karen CounesKaren Counes: My advice is simple. First, do the easy stuff. Review your current policies and procedures to see what recom­men­da­tions and preven­ta­tive measures you can take today to help lessen the overuse of resources, reduce carbon footprints, and decrease the generation of waste. The goal is to encourage your community to adopt a culture of green, sustainable behavior: taking 5-minute showers, using recyclable shopping bags, limiting overbuying at the grocery store, building compost piles for food waste, replacing leaky faucets, and other small changes that can add up to a big difference.  

In terms of city planning, I’d encourage the mayor to look at bus routes, locations of libraries, city centers, houses of worship, schools, grocery stores, medical centers and business centers. Then, look at those routes to several residential sectors of the city—taking into consid­er­a­tion all levels of economic status. Are the bus and car routes—especially emergency vehicles—planned to reach each sector in a reasonable time?  Are they serving every sector to make for a good quality of life? Can any family in the city easily walk or take a bus to a grocery store or pharmacy? Are parks and community areas easily accessible via these routes? If not, leaders should consider rethinking those trans­porta­tion routes and rezoning housing sectors in mixed-use business areas for easy access to parks, communities, transit stations, and medical centers.  

I want big ideas that have big impacts. When we've succeeded at becoming the model for a twenty-first century city, what will be the number-one reason why?

Digital Solutions Strategist

Rajan RayRajan Ray: While some decision-makers are already thinking along the lines of smart solutions, I suspect the cities that truly stand out will be ones that invest proactively in things like resiliency, innovation, standards of equity, inclusion and new technology for operational efficiency. There will likely be more break­throughs for utilities that devote budget and resources to department positions like Digital Trans­for­ma­tion Specialists and Chief Innovation Officers; they will be better poised to handle future smart city initiatives. 

Resiliency Champion

Lauren MillerLauren Miller: I agree, and I’d add cities that use their data to take care of their people will be a huge differ­en­tia­tor. My city currently uses a crowd­sourc­ing app to gather and distribute information about emergency and non-emergency events in the area—everything from burst pipes to branches in the road.

As both a city resident and a resiliency expert, I find this extremely useful for boosting acces­si­bil­ity, trans­parency and account­abil­ity. Not only does crowd­sourc­ing give city leaders the ability to use collective intel­li­gence to protect residents and inform future decisions, but it also gives everyone a seat at the metaphor­i­cal table which builds trust within the community.   

Management Maven

Karen CounesKaren Counes: Like Lauren and Jacki have suggested, cities that are truly “smart” will coordinate their everyday plans to provide a favorable quality of life without excess disparity in access to community services and infra­struc­ture needs.  

In the short-term, I foresee that city managers and controllers might institute a tax break or small fee reduction in things like trash disposal fees (or other city services) for community orga­ni­za­tions that practice sustainable behaviors. They also might further define categories like collecting recycled water for lawn care using rain barrels, using greener pesticides for lawn care, or imple­ment­ing de-icing measures that don’t include chemicals or discharge to a potable water supply source. Longer-term, they’ll want to be thinking about things like increased cyber­se­cu­rity measures, large-scale smart mobility upgrades (like dynamic pricing, usage-based car insurance and multi-modal planning) and land use opti­miza­tion strategies. 

The Energy Expert

Matt GossMatt Goss: It will be because the city has changed their thought, evaluation, and execution processes. In terms of energy utilization and efficiency, legislating regulation changes that drive energy efficiency and emissions reduction goals are going to be foundational to setting oneself up as a model city. Projects should be evaluated on much more than immediate payback or lowest initial cost. Considerations must be made for resiliency, sustainability and environmental impact. 

Trans­porta­tion Planning Pro

Jackie murdockJacki Murdock: Most states I work with today operate through reactionary efforts, which don’t take into account long-term investment needs. This is compounded by mounting infra­struc­ture improvement needs and inadequate staffing in most cities’ major departments. Cities of the future will no doubt get to a place where they can confidently sustain their core investment decisions from a staffing and maintenance standpoint without forgetting that every decision should be made with an eye toward improving the quality of life for residents.  

Modern Mobility Mastermind

Davonna MooreDavonna Moore: Populations will continue to grow, resources will continue to be limited and funding will always be in short supply, but cities need to juggle all these competing priorities and maintain a certain level of service despite these diffi­cul­ties. Truly proactive cities will be up to date on all the robust grant funding oppor­tu­ni­ties that can support their early phases of smart city planning. Everyone likes the idea of free funding but when you need to prioritize limited resources, this is often something that gets deferred.

A knowl­edge­able consultant can help clients understand those state and federal resources and get their ducks in a row so they can make budgetary decisions that would be of the biggest benefit. 

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