Smart cities: they’re about more than just technology

Jim Denton-Brown

Think big, start small and remember better public service needs to be the aim of any smart city, says Bechtel’s Jim Denton-Brown.

Many people define a smart city as essentially a collection of clever digital technologies and software that can deliver a wide range of benefits to its inhabitants.  New, powerful and inexpensive digital technology can indeed transform essential city services such as energy, water, transport, safety, health and education.  


  • Think big in terms of the vision.  The vision must excite people and motivate city departments. 
  • Start with small wins to generate momentum.  Smart water meters or smart street lights are easy wins.   Collaborate to build trust. Collaboration should be the attitude that underpins the initiative. 
  • Get started.  To achieve the vision, the process must begin.  

While there is no doubt that the benefits are real, it is also true that to capture these benefits, a city must do much more than simply focus on the technology alone. 

What cities sometimes lack is an understanding of the broader process needed to lead them to this attractive technology-driven end state. 

At the start, one of the most difficult challenges is defining the vision of a smart city - articulating a coherent direction of where the city should go.  The difficulty lies partly in the complexity of the political process itself where competing priorities and needs must be decided. 

This challenge can often be overcome by identifying a strong champion to lead the city’s efforts, articulate the vision and energise its residents.  Often such individuals are comfortable with bold ideas.  The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is looking for example at the benefits of tunnels following a recent visit to Boston. There he saw how the city was transformed by the replacement of a major elevated artery with an underground route through the heart of the city, leading to new growth, improved transport and expanded green space.

At the next phase, the specifics can be addressed systematically by development of a “road map”.  The road map starts with a frank assessment of a city’s strengths and weaknesses and recognition of its unique issues and characteristics. 

It moves on to technology plans, mapping out each element relevant to the implementation of improvements in transport, water and other systems. 

It concludes with the identification of milestones to mark progress along the way and key performance metrics to tell you when you have succeeded.  This step, of course, is not easy and requires leadership from experts in a city’s ICT infrastructure working with each city department.   To help navigate the process, the Smart Cities Council has published a roadmap offering a sample framework for cities.

One of the most significant impediments to achieving smart city goals can be the traditional model of city organisation itself.  Too often individual city departments in emergency services, water, energy or transport have been organised to operate independently in silos. 

As a result, historical operating practices, budgeting, systems and staffing limit the ability to realise the benefits of a shared technology platform that could deliver enormous efficiencies and cost savings city-wide.  To overcome this issue, it is necessary for the smart city champion to work directly with city departments at the road map stage to get buy-in and support for organisational changes. 

Finding the money for capital projects is a challenge for most cities since they must balance many other spending priorities.   Fortunately, several new and innovative financing approaches are becoming more common as avenues for funding. 

Some of these include public-private partnerships, performance funding, supplier-provided financing, and non-profit funding in environment, health and education areas.  Innovative financing vehicles can be partnered with more traditional funding sources in order to generate a range of revenue possibilities.  Financial models taking into account future value uplift now show over time that new development can fund the cost of the infrastructure itself.

In summary, the smart cities of tomorrow are not just looking at how to introduce new technologies that can enhance the city and reduce inefficiencies. 

Smart cities are adopting an integrated approach, bringing together experts in government, planning, infrastructure, financing and technology, to understand how to improve the full spectrum of public services.

Jim Denton-Brown is manager of planning, smart cities lead, Bechtel