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Time to replace silos with smart city strategists

If they are to successfully cut across silos, smart city solutions need to be championed by a CIO with a strategic mandate

In an ideal world, a smart city will deploy connected sensors that can capture and combine real-time data on everything from air pollution to traffic congestion to the health of residents in municipal nursing homes. To deliver on that vision, most urban administrations will need new people with new skill sets. In particular, they need senior staff who can see the big picture and understand the potential of technology to improve that picture in the medium-term.

Lacking such strategists, municipalities have tended to take a very tactical approach, running discrete smart city trials designed to address a very specific issue, such as improving the efficiency of street lighting and car parks. Even senior IT staff and data scientists tend to work in a department or unit with a very specific responsibility, such as waste management, transport, education, the environment or another aspect of urban life, rather than a broad mandate.

“City administrations can amount to a ramshackle collection of separate organizations under loose political control with a lot of statutory obligations and nondiscretionary spending,” says Jeremy Green, principal analyst at Machina Research, a panelist in our smart cities webinar. “Cities typically don’t have a CIO, and if they do, they are in charge of keeping the lights on and keeping the desktops running. They are managing the current estate rather than thinking about the next five years.”

Experts say the smart city won’t become a reality until municipalities have a clear and coherent overarching strategy for harnessing the potential of ICT.  “It requires a holistic approach rather than the piecemeal efforts we have seen so far,” noted Chris Lewis, an experienced telecoms analyst, in a recent tweet commenting on the progress of smart cities.

Build a dedicated team

Some cities are heeding that call. As explained in our new in-depth report, Bristol in the U.K. and Atlanta in the U.S. have given senior executives a broad smart city mandate. “We have created a centralized smart city team with a dedicated director who works on this and nothing else,” Samir Saini, Commissioner and CIO at City of Atlanta, told the TM Forum Live event in May. “We have competing priorities and we are never going to move the needle unless we have a dedicated team working on it.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Bristol is also breaking down silos between different departments in the municipality. To save money on real estate and improve coordination, the local authority is planning to co-locate nine teams in one space. That should help Bristol to adopt new sensing technologies on a citywide scale.

Bristol is also making sure it has high-level expertise in-house, primarily to ensure it doesn’t become heavily reliant on a single vendor or systems integrator. “The local authority has been astute enough to hire people with quite sophisticated technology and procurement backgrounds,” says Paul Wilson, managing director of Bristol Is Open, the smart city unit for Bristol. “We know our strategy and we will go to vendors to fulfill aspects of our strategy. We have the intelligence to know what our plan is and we are in charge. That is very important for a city or it will be blown around in the wind of vendor games.”

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