The Seven Essential Elements of a Smart City Ecosystem


If you're missing one of these sectors in your smart city strategy, you're not as smart as you could be

The topic of smart cities is commonly framed by technology but what is often overlooked is the importance of how people work together to implement those digital applications. One of the most critical factors in creating a smarter community is having the right people in place. The most successful smart city projects require participation from a diverse set of stakeholders – a team that is a representative sample of your (future) smart city.

This includes:

• Government
• Industry
• Entrepreneurs / Startups
• Academia
• Creatives & Artists
• Advocates & The Social Sector
• Residents

Cities are unique and so each city's ecosystem will look different. What is most important is that there is a wide range of perspectives represented. What often happens in many U.S.-based smart city efforts is that a specific city department (the Mayor's office, technology, innovation, etc.) will spearhead a smart cities effort and then turn to familiar faces and antiquated processes/policy to form a smart city strategy.

It is understandable how this happens – starting anything new from scratch is an intimidating endeavor. Working with people who are allies can help streamline the process. But what gets missed is the amazing opportunity to truly engage the community.

Here is more information on each sector that should be a part of building your smart city strategy:

1- Government

Understandably, most smart city efforts are local and the City is the key player. However, it is ideal to have input from both local, county and state governments. Where it is appropriate, quasi-governmental agencies (such as an Economic Development Council) or even participation from the federal level may be helpful.

2- Industry

From global corporations to local companies, the private sector has so much to offer in the realm of smart cities including advanced technology, research & development, talent, access to global networks and of course, capital. It is important to have integrity-based industry involvement and this can only result when there is open dialogue about the role of business. When the appropriate frameworks are in place and the rules of engagement are clear, there are automatically boundaries for how business can and cannot operate.

A common mistake is for local leaders to expect global corporations to give resources on a city-by-city basis without regard for the need of that business to make money. Of course there is an opportunity for corporations to engage in philanthropic and community support but it is unrealistic to expect each company to do this without a broader understanding of the bigger picture. It is up to the ecosystem to define the city’s needs and where industry can play a part. Once there is clarity on the roadmap, industry can meaningfully engage.

3- Entrepreneurs / Startups

Entrepreneurs are experts in transforming frustration into opportunity. They are masters at rallying scarce resources and prioritizing the activity that creates the greatest results. Often entrepreneurs are sidelined in smart city efforts, relegated to pitch competitions that mean well, but offer few incentives relative to the time invested.

An effective smart city ecosystem will integrate startup founders in the strategic decision making so that entrepreneurial thinking can be applied and infused throughout the process. The startup representative should be encouraged to challenge traditional thinking – this is their greatest strength. It is tempting to want to rally like-minds when creating a smart city strategy, but the greatest results come when the status quo is questioned and people are called to think differently and better.

4- Academia

Institutions of higher learning bring incredible resources to the smart city conversation. Engaging universities, colleges, etc, enables access to subject matter experts through faculty and staff not to mention the human power of motivated students, eager to put ideals to practice. Research-focused universities also bring the opportunity to conduct pilots in a ‘safe zone’ and leverage grant funding. Some of the brightest minds in the country are living in your community, but they have to be asked to participate and be given a framework in which to do so.

5– Creatives & Artists

The creative community is often overlooked in smart city efforts, but if cities truly want to be ‘human centered’, artists must be participants in the formation of new approaches. Manchester, UK stands out as a city that truly engages their creative sector which produces clear results to their smart city applications. The hallmark organization of this effort – Future Everything – “explores the intersection of art, technology and society through bold new art commissions, living labs, participatory design and public events.” Their work infuses an instant vibrancy and energy into the process.

6– Advocates & the Social Sector

Cities are facing tremendous challenges. From global warming to global pandemics, from homelessness to blighted property, from crumbling infrastructure to strained supply chains, the issues are daunting. Nonprofit organizations are on the front lines. Whether they are supporting the most vulnerable who struggle with lack of access to clean water, healthy food, education, job security, Internet or advocating for policies that promise more balanced, equitable approaches, the social sector is at the heart of every community.

If community champions are not included in the smart city process, there is a great chance that the focus will be too tech centric and miss the opportunity to create real systemic change. Nonprofits understand the complexity of systemic challenges. They have networks to support serving underrepresented, underserved populations who are often misunderstood. They understand. Instead of another sector proposing to have the solutions to ‘fix’ things, it is far wiser to create an ecosystem that values and incorporates the social sector.

7– Residents

A smart city’s job is ultimately to serve its residents. People must be placed firmly at the heart of technological innovation. Incorporating individual members of the community into smart city planning can be challenging from a process perspective, but tools such as hackathons and community pitch competitions can add efficiency as well as effectiveness. As we move more into a digital-everything world, engaging and educating people about what makes a smart city, the ethical considerations that must be put in place and the benefits of infusing connected technology into city operations is a critical one.

Getting started

The key to smart city success is rooted in cooperation and inter-connectivity. Constructing a seven-sector framework can make forming that ecosystem easier. This provides an opportunity to engage a multitude of unique strengths and then build upon those to fortify the whole. Each segment will be independent of, but dependent on the other.

So what cities are doing this effectively? San Antonio, Texas; San Diego, California; Columbus, Ohio; New Orleans, Louisiana are a few that come to mind but this is in no way an exhaustive list. While each of these cities is quite different in geography, history, economics, etc they all have one thing in common: they invite other perspectives to help shape their smart city strategy.

The process of building a Smart City can be a monumental shift in how to engage new companies, organizations and individuals. Creating smart city strategies with a cross-section of sectors can help realize the three benefits of becoming a smarter community including: efficiency of delivering city services, a better of quality of life for residents, increased economic prosperity. By applying the right technology in the right way, cities can become stronger, more connected, smarter communities.

By Chelsea Collier, Editor-At-Large.

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