Forget the Innovation Hubs, these 3 traits advance smart cities

A technology doesn’t make a city smart. A smart city is an organization that functions seamlessly to improve the lives of its people, using data as its guide. It’s more of a mindset than a “solution.”

So how do you get there? Claro Partners is one of our Innovation Partners and it specializes in human-centered design. Below, you’ll read about the three principles that smart cities embrace, but you’ll quickly see that it’s really all about one thing: people. — Kevin Ebi


By Yannick Rennhard and Chris Massot
Claro Partners

In times when trust in government is at a historic low, societies are divided, and politics has devolved into a big theatre; people are increasingly disillusioned about the ability of governments to solve their problems. 

Smart cities have an opportunity to tackle some of these issues — unfortunately, though, they are typically too siloed to create real impact for citizens.  They’re still just a sum of individual applications that lack a systemic approach to problem-solving.

What to do? Many city governments have started — just like their counterparts in business — to set up innovation hubs or labs.  The idea is to create a central space where people can come up with new solutions that could be useful for their city.  These are places that allow for innovative ideas to flow freely and that encourage everyone to contribute.

Yes, this sounds wonderful.  But does it create sustainable solutions that solve real needs of all the different stakeholders in a city? Let’s just say that we haven’t seen it so far.  As outlined in our blog post about Innovation Hubs, this usually only creates one thing: solutions looking for a problem.  Instead, we’re promoting a collaborative approach to city planning that is based on three principles.

1. Understand before you solve
At Claro Partners, we believe that in order to create successful innovation that solves real needs, the first step is always one of understanding the problem first.  In the context of a city, this means collaborating with citizens, businesses, interest groups, government officials (etc.) to understand their needs and pain points, and to combine them in a manner that identifies shared opportunity areas. 

We believe that it’s important to consider multiple stakeholders to ensure that a solution works for everyone — or as many as possible — in the end.  Only then should you start thinking about solutions and technologies.  Most of the blockchain labs or IoT hubs out there start at the other end.

2. Co-create the holistic solution
Once you have the challenge area identified, all relevant stakeholders for this problem should be brought together.  In a co-creation setting with a strong human-centered bias, all stakeholders can then develop holistic solutions together.  It’s critical to ensure in this process that whatever is created solves real problems for all the different communities and stakeholders in a city. 

3. Test and iterate locally
Once this overarching solution is defined, it needs to be thoroughly tested in a lean manner.  To do this, it makes sense to move to a specific neighborhood (perhaps the one that is most affected by the problem), and test the solutions locally. 

For certain problem spaces (transportation, for example) it may make sense to diversify the testing areas to account for local particularities.  You need to test thoroughly and with all relevant stakeholders involved to make sure that, if the solution doesn’t fit, it fails fast and everyone learns from the experience.

From our experience we know that the power of bringing together different stakeholders from the beginning should not be underestimated.  We also know that creating solutions looking for problems is not sustainable.  The only way to truly define a problem is to understand those impacted by it, their environment, and how a solution would fit into the collective ecosystem.  This is the essence of human-centered problem solving; and what environment is more human-centered than a city?