The 20 building blocks for smart cities success

Our third-annual Smart Cities Week D.C. is just weeks away, Oct. 3-5 in Washington, D.C. The world’s leading smart cities experts will converge there, sharing advice and practical steps you can take to make your city more livable, workable and sustainable.

One of those experts is Bas Boorsma. He’s the Internet of Everything leader for Cisco in Northern Europe. Cisco is a Council Global Lead Partner. He’s also the author of a new book, “A New Digital Deal,” which explores how cities can best put digitalization to work for their communities. He will be giving a presentation and signing books at Smart Cities Week.

This month, we’re sharing insights from the book. Today, the fundamental building blocks that make smart cities initiatives successful. — Kevin Ebi


By Bas Boorsma, Author, “A New Digital Deal”

What does it take to carve out a smart city strategy with reasonable odds of success? We can learn many lessons from the many community digitalization efforts and smart city endeavours around the world, with many of these insights proving remarkably consistent irrespective of location, culture, or the size and type of the community.

In my book, A New Digital Deal, I have articulated a framework of 20 building blocks. Failing to address a number of them reduces the odds of obtaining the outcomes a community aspires to achieve. Positively marking all 20 building blocks is a basis for success, but not a guarantee.

Many of the building blocks are interdependent: good leadership cannot do with-out digital-ready governance, just as the Art of Connecting Everything cannot do without proper cyberBsecurity. Not paying attention to just a few of the building blocks may unravel the tapestry of the endeavour along the way. Again: comprehensiveness is key to success.

In this week’s post, I will cover the first 10.

Leadership – Digitization-ready leadership encompasses the ability to deal with sudden outcomes and disruptive innovations. Good leadership in the smart city space is not restricted to effective ‘control’ but entails comprehensive influence across a much larger ecosystem of stakeholders. Many smart city success stories have started out with visionary leadership that managed to bring the community and its many stakeholders together and induce positive action. Much of it cannot be top-down: effective smart city management often comes with great “servant leadership.”

Governance – Digitalization is a horizontal enterprise. Connectivity, solutions, architectures, cyber security and data need to be managed comprehensively in order for a community to not end up stuck in silos and to be sufficiently future ready. Digitization does not belong (solely) to the IT manager or a single team. It affects all of the organization, all of the community, all of the municipality, all of the ecosystem. Cross vertical governance within the organization in focus is therefore imperative. Many successful smart city initiatives have started out with people and teams well mandated to operate across silos, across departments.

Vision – This sounds like the easy part, but unfortunately a real vision does not equal a great PowerPoint. A real vision is rooted in a community´s real challenges and aspirations. Arriving at a genuine vision requires an iterative process of design and exchange among the community´s stakeholders.

Needs, challenges and comparative advantages – An understanding of what the community actually wants and needs, yet also what are its strongest assets and selling points, constitute the right starting point for any smart community strategy. Solutionism and technology extravagances, can thus be avoided, with a successful smart community approach ending up addressing real needs while strengthening its social dynamism and enhancing its comparative advantages.

Assets – Too many smart initiatives start out with an insufficient inventory of existing assets that may prove relevant to the smart city endeavor, including conduits, fiber, municipal networks, light poles, street cabinets and so on. A solid, comprehensive inventory exercise may bring down costs and enhance ease of smart city project implementation.

The Art of Connecting Everything – Smart city efforts can only be successful if they are run on architectures that are seamless and secure. Second, they need to be sufficiently open in the sense that varying hardware and software components need to be interoperable and compliant with open industry standards. Third, “open” does not have to equal “open source.” The art of connecting everything is achieved by occasionally deriving value of what can be considered open source, without arriving at a patchwork of well-intended software constructs which, together, may prove anything but seamless or secure. Fourth, smart city architectures will need to prepare for a future where much of the data gets handled hyper-locally (for security and latency purposes). As a result, Fog and Edge (‘intelligence at the edge of the network’) computing capabilities will prove imperative. Fifth, multiple access technologies will need to be leveraged. Use cases determine what access technology will apply best, and use cases differ substantially. Sixth, optimal smart city architectures prepare for connectivity, security, solutions and data getting managed horizontally, across silos. There is no point procuring software in isolation for one vertical solution if a horizontal platform can facilitate multiple verticals and multiple vertical solutions. In addition, the current and future value of data will be derived from a city´s capacity to open up that data and see it cross referenced rather than having it locked in silos. Last, all the above amounts to little if a sufficiently future proof broadband infrastructure is lacking. Broadband infrastructure was, is and continues to be foundational.

Standards – Smart community initiatives, architectures and solutions should adhere to open industry standards as much as possible (see previous points), set requirements on interoperability (especially if standards are lacking) and may in fact help to produce standards by the way smart city partners procure, deliver and scale.

Cyber Security and Digital Resilience – With over 2.5 million cyber threats being monitored across networks across the globe every second, cyber security must never be an after-thought. Cyber-security should be architected into the network rather than on top of it. Cyber-security is foundational, even in early deployments, proof of concepts and pilots as early designs have a nasty habit of surviving once they have been introduced. Last, we – both as a society and smart community stakeholders – will need to adopt a culture of resilience. No one can guarantee absolutely cyber security. We may not know when the breach will happen, but we can ensure we are prepared when it does.

Big Data - Smart community initiatives have come to be focused on data, with platform and algorithms becoming key. Successful initiatives have typically articulated what value is to be derived from data, whether public or private, what data should be open or not, what data should be stored and which data should be erased. The management and governance of data is one of the fundamental challenges of our time. Who guards the data, who or what determines the rules on data governance?

Smart Regulations – Digitalization induced change comes fast and exponential, yet our regulations are static and are often embedded in old paradigms. Amending our regulatory frameworks to govern community digitalization is imperative. On the one hand this translates into timely and incremental amendments to existing rules and regulations. On the other hand, entirely new rules and regulations often have to be forged reflecting the emergence of entirely new paradigms, business architectures and delivery models that simply did not exist a few years ago. Tackling this community digitalization building block effectively, too, requires a New Digital Deal.

Next week I will cover the remainder of the building blocks.

A New Digital Deal – Beyond Smart Cities. How to Best Leverage Digitalization for the Benefit of our Communities” is available on Amazon.