Smart Cities – Where Technology and Reality Collide

By Peter Williams

Dr. Peter Williams is the Chief Technology Officer, Big Green Innovations, at IBM. His focus areas are resilience to natural disasters and chronic stresses; Smarter Cities; and cloud computing for government. He has had a major role in developing the intellectual foundation for IBM's "Smarter Planet" and "Smarter Cities" initiatives, and in identifying and integrating their technological components - both IBM-originated and from outside the company.

Many smart city projects that I encounter seem to address a single issue, or be the preserve of a single city department or agency. Outwardly this is odd, for two reasons. A city is a system-of-systems, and major opportunities are known to lie in optimizing different systems together (think water and energy; social services and education, or disaster resilience and just about any other system). And, as a generalization, the technology is increasingly available at reasonable cost to allow broader projects to proceed. In reality, while many projects that I see are highly worthwhile, and excellent expenditures of taxpayer dollars, the smart city orthodoxy of linked data enabling integrated service delivery across the span of the city’s operations often seems more conspicuous for the cases where it does not apply, than for where it does.

Why might this be?  Sometimes, those behind (say) a smart street lighting or advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) project may just not realize that the network and poles or meters can be thought of as a platform that can support a host of other uses. But this is just a symptom of a bigger issue. Governments are structured around individual departments, each of which have their own remits, responsibilities, and budgets. Individuals in those departments have their “day jobs” which take up their time, and performance measures which reflect their execution of the day jobs. They may simply not have the time or the freedom (or the inclination – if the status quo works in some fashion, why risk changing it?) to look beyond, therefore, and cash-poor departmental managements may not be able to find the extra funds or headcount needed to help them. Old and hard-to-integrate legacy computer systems may exacerbate matters.

Beyond that, sometimes a department’s data may also be protected by statute from being shared with others: take HIPAA and other privacy or data protection legislation, for example. The statutes are there to protect privacy and absolutely have a role to play – but they can prevent (or provide a pretext for preventing) health and other data being combined in ways that could otherwise be beneficial.

Going further still, departments and agencies derive power from their responsibilities, and from having their own data such that only they can carry out the tasks in question and only they are the sensible recipients of the budgets and funding required. And that is just the politics with a small “p”. Functional boundaries are only likely to be reinforced when the politics has a big “P” – where elected politicians oversee each function, and for whom responsibility and funding directly equate to power and influence to get things done, presumably why they sought office in the first place.

Functional boundaries will also be reinforced when city systems are operated by private sector utilities or contractors, which have shareholder mandates that reinforce the tendencies to optimize only within their own boundaries. Hence, for example we have the age-old problem of digging up newly repaired stretches of road because the highways department didn’t coordinate with the utilities on work they might need to carry out at the same time; or we have water and energy companies installing separate smart meter networks to the home of every customer that they share.

This gets to a fundamental issue with smart cities. Where smart city projects require departments or agencies to collaborate and share money and data in new ways, they may be just be asking the physically impossible; or they may impose a zero-sum calculation on those entities – the more collaboration, the less power, budget and funds, and the less reason for the separate existence of each entity. Said differently, in organizational and political terms, smart cities are fundamentally unnatural.

The problem is likely to be encountered again as cities and other agencies attempt to use blockchain to streamline multi-entity processes. Blockchains – distributed ledgers that enable multiple parties to interoperate on a basis of mutual trust without the need for a central coordinating or clearing entity – can have “smart contracts” embedded in them that streamline transaction lifecycles. Thus, a blockchain could be used to deliver major consumer benefits and major cost savings by enabling the seamless exchange of data between all of the parties to the lifecycle of a car – buyers, sellers, financiers, insurers, licensors, maintainers, police forces et al – without the need for a central registry. DMVs fulfil that function today – but which DMV is going to volunteer to implement a system that undermines a lot of the rationale for its existing budget, headcount and influence, and perhaps for its very existence?  Especially if, as is already happening, private sector start-ups are looking to outsource the work altogether.

The problem is not new. For example, in the 1970s, many years before the advent of the internet of things that has enabled smart cities, many cities embraced “corporate planning” – integrated, multi-departmental coordination and the “rational” identification of priorities for funding as between different departments. In the end, corporate planning lost and those methods were either discontinued or fundamentally modified to the point where they were more politically “natural”. More recently, the former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, enthusiastically promoted “joined up government” as a reaction to the departmentally based fragmentation he encountered in Her Majesty’s Government. The jury is well and truly still out on whether he succeeded!

So what is the would-be smart city to do, if it wants to truly integrate data and decision-making, to optimize across departments? Some cities plainly do succeed in creating smart city projects beyond narrow departmental or agency boundaries. How do they do that?

Sometimes the funding is available from external sources (grants and outside investment) that provides the organizational and financial “headroom” needed to move forward. But plenty of well-funded projects have failed (or have yet to succeed), so while funding may be necessary it is not a sufficient condition for smart city success. Another part of the solution lies in old-fashioned leadership. While this is close to a cliché, given the frequency with which it is trotted out as a solution to organizational problems, there are striking cases where its impact can be seen. I very recently attended an Meeting of the Minds workshop event where a city CIO attributed her city’s success in implementing smart city technologies in part to the culture of cooperation in the organization. That will have come, at least in part, from leadership. More specifically, when the Rio De Janeiro city government implemented an emergency control center to help manage the risk and impact of flash flooding, the most impressive part of the story was not the technology (as impressive as that was – in full disclosure, it came from my employer, IBM) – it was the achievement of the then mayor in getting some 30 different Federal, State and local agencies to agree to work together and share data.

A further part of the solution lies in the same politics (big “P” and small “p’) that may have caused it. On one level this is simply an affirmation of democracy in some form: smart city goals are more likely (albeit not certain) to be achieved if they accord with what a meaningful fraction of the citizenry and other important stakeholders actually want, such that a sufficiently large and/or powerful group of politicians or departmental heads feel compelled to act. But on another level, smart city projects that span multiple systems and departments often require a clearly identified and articulated “win-win” for all participants. Zero-sums have to be avoided. The way to do that lies in the art of the deal, whether tacit or explicit.

As much as smart cities may represent the future of civic infrastructure and public service, to succeed to their full potential they will have to come to terms the same organizational and politics realities that have applied, probably, since governments existed!

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