The Smart City is Enabled and Sustained by Trust

By Benson Chan

Benson Chan is a Senior Partner at Strategy of Things, a Silicon Valley based innovation consultancy that brings science, breakthrough strategies and disruptive digital technologies to help cities become smarter and more responsive. Benson brings 25 years of innovation management experience to solve complex problems in new ways.

Mar 12, 2019 | Governance, Society | 4 comments


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Smart city initiatives are top of mind among city leaders, urban planners and technology vendors today. However, most of their mindshare and resources is directed towards technology, and not on trust.

While a smart city is powered by technology and data, it is enabled and sustained by the trust its stakeholders have with the city, its services and service providers, and with each other. When there is no trust or that trust is lost, people will not use its services, nor will they participate and contribute input and data. The value of smart city services declines as expected outcomes do not materialize and people seek better alternatives.

To be relevant and remain so, a well functioning and sustainable smart city must design trust into its policies and processes right from the outset, and continually reaffirm this process. This trust must be integrated into all aspects of the smart city – its beneficiaries, creators, processes, management, policies and technology.

 

Trust in the Smart City: More than cybersecurity and privacy

Many smart city builders and solution providers equate trust with privacy and cybersecurity. While important and relevant, these are only two elements of many that create trust in a smart city. Distilling trust into these two elements oversimplifies the challenges involved and leads to inadequate solution approaches.

For city residents and businesses, trust is closely aligned with outcomes. When a city creates services that consistently provide the outcomes residents and others expect and rely on, at a fair cost, then a sense of trust is earned and reinforced. Residents expect that the bus service gets them to work and back home safely and on time everyday. When that occurs consistently, they will trust and rely on the bus as their main commute choice.

A more holistic definition of trust is the firm belief in the outcomes and value of the services provided, regardless of whether they are provided by the city or others in the smart city ecosystem (Figure One). These trusted outcomes are relevant, rendered reliably, fairly and consistently, for its intended purpose, by service providers who are credible, transparent and have the capacity to execute.

 

Figure 1. Strategy of Things(TM) Smart City Ecosystem Framework.

 

Trust is lost when:

  • Services are consistently irrelevant and benefit only a few stakeholders. These services are often labeled as a misuse of taxpayer money and resources.
  • Services are not rendered reliably, accurately and consistently to deliver the outcomes they were designed for.
  • Services are not in compliance with regulations or policies, and/or misused beyond its intended purpose.
  • Service providers are not knowledgeable and capable, transparent, and fair in delivering the desired outcomes.

 

The Smart City Trust Framework

With the importance and relevance of trust established, we now introduce a framework for building trust into the smart city ecosystem (Figure 2).

At its core is the end-to-end process used to create and operate smart city services. A set of ten strategic and operational levers acts on the process to create trusted outcomes. At each stage of the process, a different combination of trust building tactics from each lever is applied. There is no “one size fits all” set of tactics – they vary from service to service, provider to provider and city to city.

The ability of the city and its service providers to deploy these levers is a core competency in building a smarter and more responsive city. Over time, as users expectations and needs evolve, these levers must be continuously adjusted to maintain or exceed current levels of trust.

 

Figure 2. Strategy of Things(TM) Smart City Trust Framework.

 

Building Trust in a City’s Smart Streetlights

A city wishes to deploy smart technologies to connect and remotely monitor and manage its streetlights. The city will know immediately when lights are out or “dayburning” and schedule repairs. Machine learning algorithms, using sensors from streetlights, predict impending failures and proactively notify maintenance crews.

Once smart streetlights are deployed, “business as usual” is not good enough. Trust in this service and the city diminishes when the lights are not repaired quickly because there is now no excuse for not knowing a streetlight is out. Conversely, trust is also diminished if the maintenance crews discover that the lights are functional when it is not, or if the light needs servicing when it does not.

Resident and other stakeholders must be engaged to understand their concerns, needs and expectations. Current processes, performance metrics, policies and systems must be redesigned to allow the city to respond to outages in days, not weeks. In addition, changes to the organization, including jobs, roles and responsibilities, team structure, culture and accountability will be necessary. To minimize the disruption caused by these changes and facilitate adoption by city employees and residents, change management activities, including communications and training, must be conducted prior to the actual service transition.

The new service is only as effective as the technology, algorithms and data enabling it. Machine learning algorithms must interpret the sensor data from the remote streetlight controller units and distinguish between a true anomaly and a false positive. In addition, these algorithms must predict with high accuracy when the lights may need servicing by examining the sensor data. To maintain this accuracy, these algorithms must be continuously trained by certified experts using representative and unbiased data sets. Finally, the connected streetlight system must be secure, and not allow for unauthorized access to the lights, nor disrupt the metering and billing systems.

 

Next steps

Regardless of where cities are in their journey, smart city and service planners must build the trust foundation now. Key next steps are:

  • Understand the trust ecosystem framework and adapt it to fit the vision, strategy and realities of your specific city.
  • Perform a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis using the framework to assess your trust capabilities and ecosystem. .
  • Use this framework to identify and address  “trust gaps” in ongoing and planned smart city projects.

 

Build your “trust capabilities” by identifying and focusing on high priority areas through a combination of internal development, outsourcing, augmentation and strategic partnerships.

Discussion

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4 Comments

  1. Benson, This is great. What City is pictured here? Am now working on a book that includes what you noted in
    this article — and it may turn into a Series on Sustainable Mega Cities. Contact me (Woodrow Clark II PhD)
    Thanks,
    Woody

    Reply
  2. I think the conclusions are very accurate, but could not citizens’ trust be strengthened with permanent participation?

    Reply
    • Regarding your question on citizen participation – “permanent participation” won’t solve the trust problem. This is because not everyone will always have the time or the interest to participate. Even worse is when they do participate, but don’t get the outcome that they personally want. In this scenario, they may feel that the outcome was predetermined and that the “system” was fixed against them. And when that happens consistently, they stop participating.

      That said, the ability to communicate transparently to citizens and provide different mechanisms for citizens to engage and feel that they have been heard, on a consistent basis is important to building trust. Equally important, is to create the mechanisms that allow citizens to engage the way they want, or feel comfortable with. Just as retailers are using multiple channels to reach out to new and existing customers (because there is no one “magic” channel that works for everyone all the time), cities should develop the same level of sophistication when it comes to communication and engagement with its constituents.

      Reply
  3. Dear Benson, Thanks for your reply!

    Reply

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