Austin, Texas (Flickr: Gino)

On the Road to Smarter Cities

Three Challenges to Getting There

By Zachary Markovits

“I cannot help but be reinvigorated by the pervasive feeling that the change agents of today are data scientists, their laboratories are our cities, and the results of their studies will eventually be felt by every resident of our democracy.”
(Far right) The author, Zachary Markovits, with (left-right) Arnaud Vedy (City of San Diego), Len Fishman (data.world), Ian Greenleigh (data.world), and Charles Purma III (City of Austin), at Smart Cities Connect. Photo Credit: Don Jacobson.

This week, I travelled to the Smart Cities Connect Conference in Austin, Texas, where I shared how What Works Cities is helping cities across the country draw on data to make better decisions about how to allocate resources, deliver services and, ultimately, improve the lives of the residents they serve. The conference brought together innovative leaders in cities and technology companies from across the globe to think about how we can best leverage current technologies to transform our urban spaces. While there, I saw some technology that can change our cities for the better, and I got to be part of a series of conversations that made me think that the field is coalescing behind some common challenges and, hopefully, solutions. Here are three key ones I noticed during my time in Austin:

1. We need more collaboration. Cities and their partners in the tech community have started to think in regional models. It’s not enough to think about Austin alone, for example, when developing solutions, but we also need to include Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, as well as the smaller surrounding cities of Arlington, Denton, Fort Worth, Lewisville, Tyler, and Waco, if we are really going to tackle big, hairy problems. Solutions are meant to be shared, and the process toward achieving those solutions cannot be isolated by city boundaries, particularly when cities are facing common challenges and can accelerate the pace of change by drawing on each other’s insights. At What Works Cities, our Community of Cities has been helping cities do just that (see below). From a regional perspective, we’ve been working with cities in the Pacific Northwest and the Arizona Valley of the Sun, bringing them each together to find efficient and exciting ways to tackle regional problems together. It’s encouraging to see that so many other organizations are thinking the same way.

The What Works Community of Cities connects city staff with peers, experts, and resources to accelerate the pace of progress.

2. We need to see city “smartness” as part of a larger toolkit for driving performance. There is a palpable tension between cities’ desire to implement smart city technologies and their knowledge or capacity to integrate that technology into standard operating procedures. Some people think that cities should rebuild standard city practices from the ground up, with those new technologies driving how cities function going forward. Others — typically within cities — think that cities need to avoid procuring new technologies until they have set up a highly functioning internal process for managing and monitoring them. Still others are comfortable with any smart city tech implemented within a Chief Technology Officer’s department, but are less focused on how the projects integrate across departments (e.g., How does a smart streetlamp provide data to Utilities, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Control, and to a monthly CityStat meeting?). These views, and all those in-between, miss something fundamental: when it comes to using data to make decisions in cities, it’s not about tech disrupting existing decision-making processes, being so risk-averse that you don’t try something new, or about isolating technologies in one, controllable department. Instead, fundamental is embedding what works practices across city hall and treating smart cities tech as one part of a deeper toolkit that mayors, city managers, and frontline practitioners have to measure data more effectively, review and take stock of them regularly, and then to use them to make better decisions.

Our second annual What Works Cities Summit brought together 350 leaders dedicated to driving change in their 91 cities.

3. We need to build more staff capacity. There is so much more that cities can, and want, to do but not enough time in the day to do it. Finding innovative ways to improve government or deliver better services to residents has to be balanced with the time it takes staff to do their day-to-day jobs. I sat on a panel with folks from the Cities of Austin and San Diego, both of whom are doing some amazing new projects with open data and data analytics, all aligned with industry best practices, but they are rolling out that work with three-person (or fewer!) teams, often cobbled together from staff in departments across the City. If two of the eleven largest cities in the U.S. struggle to staff important new innovation projects, the challenge for smaller cities with fewer staff is even greater. Building capacity is about more than helping cities shore up knowledge to implement new technology; it’s also about committing to investing in people who can take on the challenge. In our work over the past two years, What Works Cities has seen our cities create, promote, or repurpose over two dozen staff positions; as they focus on deepening what works practices, they’re driving meaningful change in their cities.

These challenges are large, but we live in an amazing time to participate in driving change. There was — and is — a fundamental feeling that pervades this space: Cities are how the country is reinventing itself. We’ve seen progress happening across all 80 What Works cities over a very short amount of time. There’s a palpable energy, something about the intersection of technology, open data, political activism, and civic dynamism that brings an urgency to what is, generally, very wonky work. Coming home, I cannot help but be reinvigorated by the pervasive feeling that the change agents of today are data scientists, their laboratories are our cities, and the results of their studies will eventually be felt by every resident of our democracy.


Zachary Markovits is the Director of City Programs at What Works Cities. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMarko.

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