Smart city in context (1): Competitiveness (Part 3): the municipality

[Versión en castellano]

SmartCity TagsIn earlier posts, I presented my vision on how the smart city concept encourages competitiveness in businesses and citizens. In the present one, I will present how competitiveness is perceived and set up by the public administrators responsible for managing the city.

In general, these managers have a twofold goal with their management:

  1. Improving the current and future performance and quality of life of their city, and
  2. Doing so in such a way that their citizens perceive it in an absolutely clear way.

In this context, it is clear that a concept such as smart city comes in handy. And the associated competitiveness is clearly shown when we see that most municipal officials work to get theirs a smarter city than the others. And this is good, because it is a clear and viral incentive to improve the quality of life in all the cities.

So, does anyone know of a mayor who does not want to make his city more sustainable? cleaner? with a more fluid traffic? more efficient? more attractive for talent? with a higher quality of life?. Therefore, we can agree this is precisely the sort of thing which should guide the actions of the mayor. And this is why mayors like the smart cities.

And to build them, municipal managers count on technology companies, which compete to implement their technologies. They also count on the urban service providers, who systematically work to improve its performance and quality of service. And everything would go on without problems … if the financial crisis had not appeared. Some countries have deeper crises than others, of course. But the crisis is clearly seen in many countries anyway. In these cases, municipalities face tight budget constraints.

Thus, for municipalities, the logic of the crisis suggests concentrating smart city efforts in two basic goals: reducing costs and increasing revenues, thereby increasing the processes performance. Therefore, in the countries under heavy crisis it is unrealistic to launch smart city projects without incorporating at least one of these two goals. That does not prevent, of course, that cities with growing economies can run other smart initiatives, for improving the living conditions in the city even at higher costs. This happens when building new infrastructure to provide new services or expand the coverage of current ones. These actions are necessarily accompanied by a cost increase. And in these cases, it is the very expansion of its economy which should provide the necessary leeway. In contrast, in the case of cities with budget constraints, the smart city approach can probably only be materialized if it generates cost reduction.

In some cases, to overcome this limitation, some cities have addressed the issue by performing pilot projects with low budgets compared to implementing a city-wide project. But there is no consensus on this issue. Some city managers are very supportive of these pilots, while others do not consider them to be right. For the supporters, they are indeed low-cost initiatives, and have greater opportunities to run in environments with budget constraints. In addition, these pilot projects are usually positive for their ability to define creative solutions. But it is clear that converting them into real city-wide or even district-wide projects will not be possible unless they will also increase efficiency.

On the other hand, critics argue that the pilot projects have very little impact on citizens’ lives. Of course, they go in the media once or twice: when launched and when inaugurated. But citizens do not get to experience any improvement, except for the ones living inside their usually small implementation area. Therefore, critics say, pilot projects have a short life and are not a sound basis for a true smart city, unless there are resources enough to convert them into city-wide solutions. Only in these cases there would be a large enough number of targeted citizens to allow to speak of a genuine smart city action .

In another vein, it should also be noted that the economic crisis and other current circumstances have in some cases generated a distance between city politicians and citizens. In these cases, it is advisable to build a stronger link of trust and communication between them. And it is clear that the strength of this link is also an important element of competitiveness for the city.

entrepreneurshipThe smart city concept can also help design activities to strengthen this link. These activities can range from encouraging the citizens’ participation to improve the city life through their expressed views and proposals (maybe through the Internet and social networks, …), to implementing systems based on the citizens’ willingness to deliver useful information (already presented in a previous article). New initiatives based on crowdsourcing and crowdsensing, can be extremely useful in this context. Not only because they are effective solutions to problems in certain circumstances, but also because they help strengthen the link between politicians and citizens, since they actively involve both of them in solving common problems. In my opinion, the capability of crowdsourcing and crowdsensing initiatives to strengthen the link between politicians and citizens has not been widely explored up to now in the smart city environment, but I think they can be very fruitful in this context. Moreover, these initiatives perfectly meet the low-cost criterium, because their implementation and O&M costs are often lower than implementing real hard infrastructure and conventional systems.

Last but not least, another major influence factor on the competitiveness of the smart city is its ability to attract and generate entrepreneurs and promote entrepreneurship. It  is widely known that entrepreneurs have played a most significant role in the digital economy development. And I think they are starting to get inside the smart city world. For example, many entrepreneurs were presenting their ideas in the Smart City Expo & World Congress in Barcelona. They clearly showcased the role that digital entrepreneurship can play in solving the problems of the cities, focusing on the real citizens’ needs and based on their self-involvement.

Now, city managers, whether public or private, should encourage a strong entrepreneurial development to help improve the living conditions and sustainability in cities, and build thereby Smarter Cities.

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