Smart city technologies and the “return on citizen investment”

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities, up from the 54% in urban areas today. This migration has already been realized in a major way in such cities as Tokyo with 38 million people and Delhi and Shanghai both with more than 25 million people.

Having spent most of my career in technology marketing, I was accustomed to consumer deployments that could have touched millions of people dispersed around the world. However it was not until I recently became totally immersed in a project focused entirely on the development of smart and resilient cities, did I realize the magnitude of urban migration on technology demands.

In some cases smart cities are being built that never existed. India has announced an ambitious plan to have 100 new “smart cities” across the country that rural villagers will eventually migrate to.

While most of the technologies are not unique to CIOs, the complexities of deploying them across the myriad of fortified silos in the modern municipal government structures makes corporate implementation look quite tame. It is the epitome of the famous Peter Drucker quote that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This theme was reinforced in the Smart City Congresses in Barcelona and Montreal this year where thousands of urban visionaries convened to discuss the complexities of making city dwellers safe and happy through the use of smart and resilient technologies. Large private enterprises surely must satisfy paying customers, but cities have the extra burden of an involuntary taxpayer being their “end user.” In periods of economic conservatism and austerity, the ROI on what in smart cities is referred to as “return on citizen investment” is magnified.

Not surprisingly, the two major themes related to smart and resilient city technologies were Internet of Things (IoT), and open/aggregated data of various varieties. IoT implementations across the 21st century smart city add orders of magnitude to the old “Four Vs” of big data (volume, variety, velocity and veracity).

As the City of Boston’s urban technologist Nigel Jacob said at Smart City Congress Montreal this week, “many cities gather millions of volumes of contextless data as a result of IoT and other feeds. The challenge is to apply community context to drive insight, value and ROI.” The other challenge is to hurdle the silos and aggregate data across the municipality to gain new insights from seemingly disparate departments like water and transportation.

Officials running smart cities must balance the increasing demands by citizens for usable open data insight to improve everyday life, with their vigilance for data privacy and security. As you can imagine this data flow is not driven strictly from machine-to-machine interactions within the governmental structure.

Commercial enterprises are increasingly becoming one of the “things” driving data to the governmental data center. One of the most compelling smart cities movements is related to ride sharing and rental-by-the-hour to reduce traffic jams and carbon footprints. For example, firms like ZipCar have very strong relations with urban transportation divisions, and the data derived from their rental cars are able to provide insight.

The second rapidly growing area of Resilient Cities is largely related to using technology as a factor in planning for natural disasters (e.g. Hurricane Sandy) and what is now referred to as “slow motion disasters” like poverty and urban decay (e.g. Detroit). In this sector, private enterprises are also becoming emergency response data nodes to monitor availability of critical products like food, water and repair supplies.

Is your enterprise involved in a smart or resilient city strategy someplace in the world?


  1. Cool. I like the way you have expressed your thoughts.
    The point here is just building and creating smart cities is not of a major concern. The concern is the problem of accommodation that may arise due to this and will there be facilities made available to everyone. India’s plan is really very ambitious but they should even check its feasibility. Many upcoming cities like Muscat of Oman have already made it.

    Liked by 1 person

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