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Local government is the driver for smart cities

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By David Jenkins

Almost every city or municipality has embarked on some form of ‘smart city’ initiative.

From integrated transport apps to greener buildings and public wifi rollouts, the world’s cities are being transformed by digital technology with the aim of making them more sustainable and liveable.

The McKinsey Global Institute has assessed dozens of applications and estimates that implementing these measures can improve a city’s quality of life indicators by 10 and 30%, so the smart city movement is worth joining.

Local government authorities have a vital role in the smart city movement. While they often partner with private companies, the lead often comes from the public sector, with elected officials playing key roles.

I attended the 2023 Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona. I observed the exchange of ideas between public sector professionals, elected officials and the private sector on how they could improve their local communities.

A key observation was around collaboration. Many of the ideas and projects in Europe are being trialled and piloted in one city before being adopted elsewhere. 

There is a healthy exchange of ideas, and cities must be more proprietorial about their initiatives. Cities will always compete for prominence and recognition, but that is secondary to the momentum of the smart city movement as it drives a regional transformation.

For example, the Estonian capital of Tallinn has emerged as an innovative test bed for smart city applications. Tallinn has embraced the smart city movement and actively promotes new applications in the strong European network.

For these ideas to be implemented successfully, municipal or city-level leadership is required, and this extends to professionals and elected representatives.

McKinsey’s research in Europe has identified the challenge of convincing local citizens of the benefits of potential projects and has called out the importance of leadership from local government.

With the support of their administrators, mayors are needed to take the lead in communicating the benefits of projects with their citizens.

Technology vendors are also often frustrated by what they see as a need for more understanding from the city, and many projects have floundered on decision-making roadblocks.

For projects to succeed and gain traction, city administrators and elected officials must be committed partners capable of making fast and sustainable decisions.

Projects need to meet several hurdles. If there is a political agenda, it must be navigated to appease stakeholders and bring them on side.

A compelling story on the benefits of the initiatives must engage citizens and local businesses. Often, this will require the city to act as a coordinator rather than acting unilaterally, an approach that can sometimes lead to pushback.

Finally, responsibilities should be bundled and shared around operational departments of the city and private sector partners. The city should take the lead in this process, and its leadership is critical to project frameworks and workflow.

Given the city’s central role in implementing these initiatives, there is a need for clear leadership and communication from elected officials.

Many of these people will not be technology professionals or administrators, yet they are front and centre in helping drive this transformation.

Regardless of their backgrounds, however, they were elected by their communities to lead and have a responsibility to acquire the knowledge and skills to do this effectively. 

The people who elected them are depending on it.

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