These 12 pitfalls hold projects back (here's how to avoid them)

Our third-annual Smart Cities Week D.C. is coming up 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, he’s sharing the biggest mistakes cities make with their smart cities projects — and discussing how you can avoid them. – Kevin Ebi


By Bas Boorsma, Author, A New Digital Deal

As you plan your smart cities initiatives, it’s often helpful to look back and learn from the mistakes others have made in addition to studying best practices. In my recent book, “A New Digital Deal,” I made a comprehensive effort at both: a framework of 20 building blocks for successful community digitalization has been proposed, while the framework leverages lessons learned in roughly 15 years of smart city initiatives, resulting in an analysis of the pitfalls to avoid. Here are the 12 most important factors that have limited smart city endeavors of the past.

  1. 1. The Game of the Name: The term “smart city” has proven to be a significant challenge in and of itself. There have been many different definitions and there will be many more. If your team doesn’t understand what you mean by “smart city,” it can lead to confusion over objectives, desired outcomes, success metrics, and methodologies to apply. “Smart” remains too broadly defined and, perhaps, still insufficiently understood to truly define an actual approach or strategy to digitalization.
  2. 2. Technology Myopia: Many smart city initiatives have ended up as technology demonstrations. Technology is, of course, fundamental to a community digitalization strategy, yet it should serve as a means to an end – a beneficial societal outcome – and not the end itself. This holds true not only for community leaders, but also for digital solution producers. A research and development question articulated by a technology company that commences with ‘let us prove how technology A, B or C will improve X, Y or Z in society’ has limitations and may result in a useful technology proof of concept, but not in a viable smart city outcome.
  3. 3. Solutionism: As a natural extension to the previous point, many smart city initiatives suffer from solutionism – that is, a situation in which the solutions become the objective of a smart city effort, rather than the solutions being a means to achieving a desired outcome. This pitfall typically has its origin in the engineering culture of many technology companies. This culture tends to push out solutions that are intended to make something ‘better’ (even if it was already good), which, often, translates into a series of efficiencies. Don’t get me wrong: engineering culture is great, but when smart city endeavors get built around solutions, projects can degenerate into solutionism and have limited relevance to the community itself.
  4. 4. Lack of Clear Objectives: Clear objectives are a must-have. Without them, defining what constitutes success or failure, or the threshold for scaling and replication, is impossible. Without clear objectives, the team may select and apply the wrong construct to the project. If the project’s purpose is only to test a new technology, then a proof of concept will suffice. If the purpose is to expose citizens to a new service, then a pilot with sufficient scale and organizational support may be the right option. But pilots and proofs of concept rarely demonstrate true value to the community. So where is the true value in the project and how will you recognize it when you see it?
  5. 5. Smart Cities as a Matter of Public Sector Procurement: In many smart city endeavors, smart city propositions have been targeted purely at government, with the public sector being the presumed customer, or the only customer. While they sometimes may be, smart cities should not be seen as exclusively a matter of public sector procurement. They should become a market place. Cities are a canvas of societal digitalization with many actors (and customers) involved, the public sector being one of them. Successful smart community initiatives rely on effective and comprehensive ecosystems of partners at work, leveraging next-generation business architectures, as opposed to an overly large reliance on public sector budgets.