To achieve intelligent infrastructure, city hall will repurpose innovations developed by the private sector.
Some of the most disruptive innovations of the last few decades were made possible by collaboration between the public and private sectors. Apple developed the revolutionary idea for the iPhone, then used $500,000 in public grants to help build it. The internet, GPS, and even Google’s search algorithm were all first imagined by visionaries in the private sector, but brought into the real world by hundreds of thousands in government funding and support.
The pattern that’s plain in all these examples is a reliance on the ingenuity and agility of private enterprise for creating new businesses, solutions, and tools while using the infrastructural and financial might of public institutions to bring them to life. As the world prepares for the age of the Smart City, the private and public sectors can (and must) follow this recipe for success once more.
The Current State of the Smart City
Smart City technology encompasses virtually every public resource and piece of infrastructure that makes urban life possible. In the broadest possible terms, a Smart City uses data and communication technologies to improve the quality of government services. Those technologies and their applications vary to a great degree, but critical to the idea of a Smart City is that infrastructure be connected.
For example, smart infrastructure can be used to continuously monitor a city’s drinking water in real-time for lead content, ensuring that maintenance on the city’s water system can be carried out proactively. But say that lead content spikes suddenly, and municipal authorities aren’t immediately able to locate the problem. Strong, interconnected data systems would enable officials to cross reference smart hospital records to see if anyone in the city was suffering from symptoms related to lead poisoning. Analytics could search for patterns in the locations of those who were hospitalized and use them to find the source of the contamination.
IoT and other connected technologies can bring a number of benefits to Smart Cities, from safer transportation systems, to emissions and pollution reduction, to more efficient energy infrastructure. But deploying these applications in a piecemeal fashion has proven a monumental challenge. Disparate systems built on siloed software platforms cannot enable the seamless connectivity needed to realize the promises of intelligent infrastructure — hence the need for thoughtful collaboration between the private and public sectors.
Enterprises Are Designed for Smart City Innovation
It is municipalities and their residents who will benefit from Smart City technologies, but to ensure that their benefits are well worth the considerable investment, these technologies can and should be developed by private businesses.
With far fewer procedural hurdles and greater risk tolerances, enterprises tend to innovate much more rapidly than governmental institutions. Corporate leadership tends to be centralized, with the CEO in full control of the company’s direction. Of course, they’re still subject to laws and regulations, but they don’t need to deal with nearly the same amount of bureaucratic red tape that, say, a mayor would.
This relative freedom is critical in the case of smart city innovation, where ideas need to be tested, executed, and at times, scrapped quickly in order to develop a working solution. A “fail fast” mentality is fairly useless if you don’t have the authority or agility to actually fail.
Strong regulatory oversight as well as the decentralized nature of decision-making in municipal government represent natural barriers to comprehensive digital transformation in the public sector. Procurement of new technology is often done at a departmental level — the water department will purchase tech from one vendor, the department of transportation from another, and so on. But this disjointed adoption and implementation process make it challenging to create the fully integrated and interoperable platforms needed to develop a truly Smart City.
Industry 4.0 has had to work these kinks out for themselves — IT directors have been solving interdepartmental misalignment for years in the private sector, whereas cities are only just starting to hire CIOs and CTOs. Even more than the specific innovations developed by agile enterprises in the private sector, it’s this interdepartmental alignment that city halls can and must borrow if they’re to evolve into the “city 4.0” of the future.
Eliminating Information Silos With Flexible Smart City Platforms
Just as Industry 4.0 has been powered both by discrete technologies and the platforms that connect them, city governments must ensure that the systems they implement form an interconnected whole. Collaboration between the public and private sectors in the form of public-private partnerships (PPPs) will be crucial. Drawing on the organizational structure of private enterprises when it comes to technological solutions — while challenging, given the inherent constraints of government — should help as well. But choosing the right platform on which to build smart city solutions will constitute the critical decision that finally makes or breaks these efforts.
As is usually the case, we’ll likely see governments seizing opportunities to capitalize on innovations developed in the private sector. Cities looking to get ahead of the curve should recognize that enterprises will have to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to, for example, hardware development. Getting out ahead of the private sector on their own in this regard is not practical for most cities.
Where cities can (and must) invest their time and resources, however, is in building interoperable applications that can both deliver tailored solutions to specific problems (i.e. energy efficiency) and have the integrative capabilities to align with the “smart city” infrastructure as a whole. Only flexible, purpose-built platforms can achieve this dual directive and propel urban infrastructure into a new era.