Why do we still fail to use and scale smart city and data-driven solutions?


The World

For more than a decade rapid urbanization has led to the launch of countless smart city projects and solutions. Yet, we do not seem to get the necessary benefit from them. What is standing in the way of success? During the pandemic, we have seen how the cities with a solid digital infrastructure and intelligent use of data, have excelled. The C40 network focus on data to understand how we can find new innovative solutions to climate change; and in Copenhagen, data and digital solutions are important ingredients behind the world class cycling infrastructure, where more than 50% are cycling to work or school, resulting in improved air quality, less congestion and the healthier citizens.


For the past 13 years, I have worked almost full-time with the smart city concept and smart city value chains around the world. I have helped cites, governments, universities and companies wanting to use the smart city concept or data or trying to sell smart city solutions. This has provided me with a deep insight into the smart city ecosystem and therefore also a solid knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.


Even though some cities, countries, and companies are making great progress, very few if any, have managed to use the full potential of data and the smart city concept. This is due to the complexity of the concept and the lack of smart city business cases.  It takes time and effort to build a business case taking a financial as well as a sustainability and a citizen’s perspective. This stage of the smart city approach is rarely funded by the public or the private sector and this is very likely why investments often stop at the test stage. This is one of the main obstacles to success as the complexity of the approach needs to be simplified through cross-cutting use and business cases showing the real value of it.


Cities and companies know of smart city solutions and use cases, but they fail to build the business case, which is a major barrier to implementation and scaling of the solutions. What problem will the solution address and what is the benefit for the city and its citizens? How can the solution be used to address other challenges and what interesting insights can be used for other purposes?  Smart city solutions reach their full potential (both operational and financial) when they cross sectoral or departmental boundaries, but this is a major challenge within the traditional organisational structure of a city or company.


Smart City solutions have multiple use cases by default, or at least they should have. This creates two obstacles as we see the concept today. One, if the cities only use or look at the solutions as ‘one investment – one solution’, then the business case often fails, however, it can be difficult for a city to understand the multiple uses of a smart city solution. Two, often the companies are selling in silo-solutions to match one specific problem or sector, which makes it hard to find the business case, both for the city and for the companies that seek to sell the solution. The cross-cutting nature of the smart city concept is what makes it so interesting and yet so difficult and frustrating to work with. It is vital for both cities and companies to understand the full potential of smart city solutions.

Here are three basic examples, which show the problems that hinder the full implementation of the concept and solutions.


Understanding your citizens’/visitors’ movement patterns.

This is often called Origin-Destination data and explains where people are coming from in a given destination (metro station, town square, shopping center, festival etc.) and can be bought from telco’s, credit cards, google, apps and so on. It is used for traffic planning, understanding Covid-19 and movement patterns during the pandemic, tourism overview, city services analysis, just to name a few. Data, in general, should be at the core of most cities’ and companies’ business plan. How can we use this information across departments and projects? How can this information help us to find new business partners and partnerships? If you cannot answer these questions, you are not working effectively with the concept or data. Cities and companies need to work more strategic with data to gain the benefits data can offer.


Intelligent Street Lights.

Today, the smart poles for intelligent streetlights, can create data for a huge array of projects. It can count objects, measure noise, temperature, pollution, it can control the lights, it can inform citizens, it can be a citizens emergency point, an EV-charging station, it can provide network and collect data from sensors, it can be the key element in on-street parking and much more. The point is, the more cases you add, the better the chance of a good business case, both internally and with external partners.


Limited use of smart city technologies.

When I have meetings and workshops with cities, I often ask what they would like to know to create better services or be more efficient; and what technology and data they have already purchased. Here I often find smart city/IoT platforms, intelligent smart poles, sensors, and data, which seldom is used to its full effect.  When I ask companies (mobility, energy, developers, retail…) the same question, I’m confronted with the same problem. Why is this the case? It is often the lack of staff/resources to ensure the horizontal integration of the smart city investments and build the business case before purchasing a solution. This is also where companies selling smart city solutions fail to show the full potential of them, which makes them difficult to sell and difficult for cities to buy.


My collaboration with cities, regions, governments, universities, and companies on unlocking this potential for the past 13 years has convinced me that we have only tapped a small part of the potential that is out there. We have plenty of good examples and tools, so if you can recognize yourself in the above and want to reach the full potential of your smart city approach, send me an e-mail or a message and I will be happy to help and discuss.