Determining the persona of the smart city

smart city persona DXC Blogs

I’ve admittedly become obsessed with neuroscience and the marketing concept of personas and try to apply the ideas now across all of my work.

In a recent piece, I wrote on the more generic topic of why customer personas matter, especially through a marketer’s lens. I’m currently studying the neuroscience of buyers in the healthcare technology sector and how vendors need to be sensitive to the most effective way to send messaging.

In my work in the smart cities sector, I’ve encountered a need to understand the “persona” of a city. I’ve spent time away from my home in the suburbs to immerse myself in Boston city life and get a more visceral sense of the city’s “vibe” or, dare I say, persona.

I had originally thought I would be at a distinct disadvantage in not living or working fulltime in the city. But in some ways, this made it easier for me to understand the persona, as I found myself less “desensitized” to city issues.

At the most sensory level, I could smell and hear things friends and colleagues who live in the city no longer noticed. (One popular deodorizer commercial refers to this as being “nose-blind;” I suppose urban dwellers may become “city blind.”)

In an attempt to become more observant in urban settings, I’ve applied the French tradition of Flaneur, or simply sitting still and watching closely. But with my newfound obsession with personas, I also felt a need to go beyond simply observing. What personalities could be applied to various aspects of urban life?

In city branding, the persona is typically applied to the totality of the city, which usually shows up in marketing/ tourism taglines. We can all recognize “The City of Brotherly Love,” “The City That Never Sleeps,” “What Happens in Vegas,  Stays in Vegas” and “Keep Austin Weird.”

But such slogans flatten the highs and lows of personas related to individual aspects of city life. For example, many transportation officials tell me about how each city has a “transportation” personality, for good or for bad.

For example, Los Angeles has an automobile persona whereas New York and London have very strong public transport personas. In my area, Boston is somewhere in between.

Cities with “smart transportation” personas are among finalists in the recent DOT Smart City Challenge:




Kansas City



San Francisco

Columbus actually won the challenge, which I think few of us would have guessed based on an outsider’s perception. (Do read the city’s winning application; it’s important work they’re taking on.)

Even within the finalists’ list here, there’s great variation on how the transportation persona is formed. For example, in Austin there’s great debate that supporting urban growth through improved transportation will harm the city’s attempt to “keep Austin weird.”

Cities with education personas may be some of the easiest to spot. The normal suspects of Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are included on most lists. I would argue that Pittsburgh has moved from a city with great universities to a city with a growing education persona.

But what would be your guess for cities that have a strong “waste water persona,” or a strong persona for lighting? More importantly, who are the “customers” within the public sector departments that create these experiences.

Experience tells me that many vendors tend to ignore critical personas and the neuroscience that drives city government decisions. The focus should be, not on simply selling product, but engaging with cities and the employees who run them in a personalized way with a full understanding of what makes them tick.


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