Six Trends in Smart City Strategic Planning from the U.S. & Canada
What London can learn from cities in North America
What do New York City, Toronto, Boston, Kansas City, Vancouver, Montréal and the City of West Hollywood have in common? They’re all renowned, in different ways, for their digital and smart city initiatives. Kansas City, Missouri has a “smart city zone” which features interactive kiosks and sensors in smart streetlights to monitor traffic. New York City was one of the first to create digital road maps in 2010–2013; the City of West Hollywood adapted this format for its 2018 Plan. Vancouver was an early pioneer of open data, and the City of Toronto is known for its collaboration with Sidewalk Labs.
As part of the Smart London Listening Exercise, A Smarter London Together, I’ve been speaking with current and former CDOs, CTOs, CIOs and other senior officials in these cities. The “Mayor wants collaboration…between London and other cities in the UK and across the world”, as Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell has said. Although these seven cities vary significantly in population and budget size, London has much to learn from them. The feeling is mutual: Most of the city officials I spoke to cited London as a major inspiration in their digital planning, too.
Six major trends in smart city strategic planning in North America are relevant for the Smart London Board, as it moves from the “listening” phase into the “making” phase of the new Smart London Plan. The full report of findings from this research can be read here.
1) Faster tech development = plans for frequent iteration + flexibility
As technological progress accelerates, cities are adapting their strategic planning in two ways. First, some are building in iteration from the very beginning by calling their strategies living documents. They define ‘living’ to mean that the plan will be revisited at least annually. As the City of West Hollywood’s Innovation Team insisted: “We want to stay as nimble as possible”. Second, tech teams are striving to preserve some flexibility to pursue opportunities that can’t be anticipated.
2) Smart phasing helps
When developing a digital strategy, cities often face significant challenges: limited tech talent, poor data infrastructure, and limited citywide collaboration. Careful phasing of initiatives can help. For instance, Kansas City’s Digital Equity Strategic Plan includes “quick wins” for every priority as well as longer-term plays, designed to demonstrate impact up-front and generate early momentum. Vancouver’s CIO Jessie Adcock insists the city needs to focus on “foundational” technological and organisational capacity-building before it can start to realise its vision of a “smart, intelligent, connected, green city”.
3) Citizens are central, but meaningful collaboration is difficult to get right
All cities strive to engage citizens in their strategic planning and throughout delivery, but with varying results. Simply asking residents how different technologies should be used is not always effective. Stéphane Guidoin, Montréal’s Acting Director for the Smart and Digital City Office, commented this approach can generate extra work to “take ‘solutions’ and retro-engineer them to needs”. Instead, Montréal has trialled multiple engagement methods to inform its digital planning. The city holds open meetings for residents, hosted an online “idea box”, and analysed the city’s 311 calls to identify when and where citizens were encountering issues that technology could help address. Before redesigning Boston.gov, the City of Boston undertook extensive user research to develop guiding principles — such as “Act as a Helpful Human” and “Equal Parts Warm and Official” — that continue to guide their digital work.
4) Tech sector collaboration growing more intentional
All cities engage with the local tech sector to some extent when crafting their digital plans. However, some cities indicated that while initial input from industry had been valuable, this engagement had dropped off when the planning process was over. This can be a lost opportunity, since industry can help city government keep up-to-date with the latest tech developments. However, where economic development is also a priority for the city technology department, engagement tends to be ongoing and more purposeful. Examples include Toronto’s Smart Cities Working Group, and New York City’s Technology Leadership Advisory Council and Moonshot Challenges.
5) Cities are using competitions to catalyse idea generation and engagement — but tend to put strategic planning on hold
All the cities surveyed in Canada are responding to the federal government’s Smart Cities Challenge. This is seen cities as a helpful catalyst for ideation and engagement. Alexandra McDonough of the Canadian Urban Institute noted that some cities are planning to use their application as a foundation for their first (or next) smart city strategy document. However, responding to a high-profile national competition consumes considerable bandwidth, and most cities are postponing long-term strategic planning until it is over.
6) The decline of smart city master plans?
In an unexpected twist, both Boston and New York City are deliberately eschewing digital master plans. One reason for this is the speed of change, mentioned above. But before we start predicting the death of the smart city strategic plan, it’s important to note that Boston and New York City are unusual. Technologies are well-integrated into their overall city plans (Imagine Boston 2030 and One New York respectively), enabling digital teams to use those as their guide. Both cities have strong, central coordination functions for digital (the Boston Department of Innovation and Technology, and the New York City Mayor’s Office of the CTO). They also benefit from dedicated innovation functions, whose main responsibility is to experiment, test and iterate: Boston has the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and New York City has NYCx.
From these six trends from North America, there are some key take-aways for London.
First, thoughtful phasing of initiatives and in-built flexibility can help mitigate uncertainties.
Second, meaningful engagement with residents requires diverse participatory methods and user research.
Third, digital master plans may not always be necessary, as digital technologies become more integral to the GLA family and across boroughs. But to get there, London likely needs a strong coordination function, and dedicated resources for innovation. This is another reason to champion the proposed London Office for Technology & Innovation.
Finally, the Smart London Board’s five priorities are shared by other cities. As concrete initiatives are scoped out in the new Plan, London should look to collaborate with cities that have similar agendas.