Making Sure that Smart Cities Work for Citizens

By Seth Robinson

Seth Robinson is senior director of technology analysis at CompTIA, focusing on tech trends that impact IT professionals, businesses, and government entities.

Feb 20, 2018 | Governance, Society | 1 comment

A lot of people are talking about smart cities, and a lot of people are talking about digital transformation. At a high level, there’s an important similarity between the two topics. The discussion tends to start off with a focus on technology, but success in these initiatives actually comes from re-imagining all the working parts around that technology. In terms of digital transformation, this means that businesses have to rethink their processes and organizational structure to best take advantage of cloud computing and mobile devices. In terms of smart cities, this means ensuring that people are well informed of the services being offered, the data being collected, and the investments being made.

CompTIA’s latest research on smart cities shows a gap between the approach that city officials are taking with smart cities, and the general public’s familiarity with the concepts involved. These are early days, so there is certainly time to close this gap, based off of an understanding of where things stand today.

 

Smart Cities from the City Perspective

Let’s start with a look at the perception of smart cities among government officials. Only nine percent of government respondents in CompTIA’s survey say that they are deeply engaged with smart cities, and of that subset, there is a big difference between large cities and others. In large cities (those with over 250,000 inhabitants), 23 percent of officials say they are deeply engaged, compared to 7 percent of officials from smaller cities and municipalities with the same answer. While smart cities are made of many individual components, the broader initiatives are large-scale, making the trend more conducive to cities with more resources. This is similar to what has happened in business the past few years, as trends like Big Data and Internet of Things first gain adoption at larger companies.

Another 60 percent of city officials say they are familiar with smart city concepts or they have at least heard of the term. Within this group, the sentiment is overwhelmingly positive; 74 percent of these officials view smart city concepts as “very positive” or “mostly positive,” believing that smart city initiatives will bring cost savings, drive greater sustainability, and help with planning and development efforts.

To make headway on these smart city plans, better education will be necessary. According the CompTIA, government officials currently cite their top sources for smart city information as the general news media and government-related news sites or blogs. This helps to explain the hype around the smart city trend. When sorting out tech priorities, most cities are still focused on modernization of outdated systems or the security of their existing digital assets. Server upgrades and firewall configurations don’t tend to make headlines. As the management of cities becomes more technical, city officials will need to add technology-related information to their standard reading list.

 

Smart Cities from the Citizen Perspective

As cities move into a new era of connectivity and intelligence, it's important to look past smart city infrastructure projects, and make sure that the people living in these cities feel connected to the new services and benefits. It’s not surprising to see that the average consumer is less familiar with smart city concepts than government officials. Only 26 percent of consumers say that they have familiarity with smart cities, though this number is higher among consumers that own some type of smart home technology. There's no great mystery behind this low familiarity; a small number of consumers say that they frequently hear elected officials discussing smart cities, even in large metropolitan areas. In these early days, discussion of smart cities has not become a top priority for those in charge of communicating with the public.

When presented with a list of possible smart city use cases, consumers showed interest in line with the interest shown by government officials. For example, 83 percent of government respondents and 77 percent of consumer respondents to the survey showed interest in enchanced e-government services.

Similarly, public Wi-Fi had 83 percent of consumers showing interest, and 70 percent of government officials. The motivations might be slightly different—citizens are often looking for improvements to quality of life, and government is often looking for cost savings—but there is certainly agreement that a variety of smart city applications could be useful.

Even more encouraging, citizens have positive perceptions of smart cities. Given the headlines around data privacy and surveillance, there is probably some trepidation, but that doesn’t appear to dampen enthusiasm. Among those respondents with familiarity of smart cities, 56 percent say that they have a generally positive view of the concept. Even better, 60 percent of the overall sample said that they would definitely or probably like to live in a smart city based on their current knowledge.

 

Next Steps for Government

So, what should government officials do to inform the public about smart city initiatives while also being receptive to any public concerns? The first step is to recognize citizen awareness as an issue. When asked about hurdles to building a smart city, the top two responses were budget concerns (67 percent) and cybersecurity (60 percent). The digital divide among citizens is a much lower priority—only 35 percent rate that as a potential problem. In reality, the hurdles to adoption present the opportunity to open a dialog with the community.

When it comes to smart city services and benefits, consumers will naturally respond favorably to suggested improvements without considering the financial implications. Given limited resources, it’s important to highlight the potential tradeoffs that might be involved. CompTIA’s study presented several tradeoff scenarios to those taking the survey: 39 percent of consumers say they would probably be willing to shift budget from city staff raises, but only 31 percent would be willing to shift budget from high school athletic facilities, and just 27 percent would be willing to shift budget from new police or fire vehicles. Understanding acceptable budgetary tradeoffs will help elected officials prioritize investments.

Cybersecurity is a field that is changing drastically as new technology models are introduced. Clearly, city planners need to be fully aware of any vulnerabilities with pieces of physical infrastructure that are gaining digital capabilities, but handling data privacy is another sticky area. Recent events such as the inadvertent disclosure of U.S. military sites by the Strava fitness app, show that there are unintended consequences with data collection. Especially when these consequences appear at large scale, they cannot be addressed with opt-in or opt-out options at the consumer level. Thinking broadly about the problem and bringing in as many voices as possible can help bring to light, and mitigate the risks.

Just as cities are transforming through the use of new technology, there should be innovative ways of gathering those voices. Shifting social schedules and attitudes towards communication mean that standard methods of public discourse like town halls may no longer be most effective ways to build community conversation. Smart city initiatives should also include smart ways of connecting with the public, so that the best, and most agreed upon decisions are made, and new services are utilized by the city as fully as possible.

Discussion

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1 Comment

  1. Agreeing completely to the aspect of gathering as many voices as possible for a larger scale acceptance of Smart City solutions, I would like to find out what could be the best way to improve the communication with the public. The town hall meetings in general might only attract the ones that are already in favor and supportive. The real challenge is probably to reach the citizens that are not part of the already engaged group. Do you have any suggestions of how to best approach the rest of the citizens? In business language you might say, how do you reach more than just the early adopters. Within the transformation of a whole city service environment a successful solution can only be realized by reaching and covering “all” citizen´s needs.

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