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smart city redefined as people focused

The smart city redefined as people-focused

December 02, 2021

Recently a number of cities in the U.S. were asked for their definition of a smart city given the context of the time that has passed since the introduction of the vision that some say began as long ago as 1974 when Los Angeles created the first urban big data project “A Cluster of Los Angeles."

The initial smart city evolution, most often credited in recent history to IBM’s Smarter Plant Initiative in 2008, was based on a tech-first approach and had recently escalated into what could be described as a ‘tech arms race’ with pie-in-the-sky visions of jetpacks, flying cars and robot maids reminiscent of The Jetsons, but cities are now stepping back from that vision and shifting priorities.

Five years ago, the smart cities movement was not focused on people and may have largely failed because cities were not trusted stewards of data and technology and lacked policy, processes, and systems that supported the increased use and collection of data that new technologies provide. As hindsight is 20/20, an early exuberance for the potential of smart city technologies may have distracted from a primary concern, namely the citizens’ perspectives and needs.

Fortunately, over the past five years the focus of smart city initiatives has shifted from simply implementing the newest technologies to prioritizing the needs of their community and its residents. Some of those new priorities include finding smarter ways—including with new technologies—to meet those needs while safeguarding residents’ privacy. Sparking a lot of that change was the COVID-19 pandemic, which surfaced inequities, especially around digital access, and highlighted the need for governments to transform.

Four of the five of the most populous metros nationwide connected to the theme that the digitization and movement toward a complete transformation were rooted in improving residents’ quality of life and have provided an updated and insightful definition of what the smart city means to them and their citizenry.

New York City: John Paul Farmer, Chief Technology Officer of NYC said, “A smart city meets the needs of its people. Generally, that requires public engagement, user research, experimentation, planning and technology that provides the infrastructure, products and services that help residents thrive.” As the largest city in the nation, the recognition of the need to address the people-first concept is clear.

Los Angeles: Deputy Mayor of Budget and Innovation Jeanne Holm said a smart city is a city “that provides services and uses data and technology in ways that improve equity, access, safety, and quality of life for residents, businesses and visitors.”

Houston: Jesse Bounds, Director of the Houston Mayor’s Office of Innovation & Performance, said a smart city “leverages data and advanced technologies to improve the quality of life for citizens by sharing information with the public, driving economic growth and building a more inclusive society.”

Phoenix: Mayor Kate Gallego said a smart city is data-driven, technologically focused, and well designed. It “designs and implements solutions for efficient use of time, resources, and energy — improving city processes and quality of life for residents.”


It’s clear that a shift has taken place to prioritize citizens and their needs and interests. In the past, many cities were not starting with a problem first. Instead, they were captivated by the solution, and attempting to create a way it would fit in the city, versus starting with the problem and thinking about what the most appropriate technologies would be in their wider toolkit. Cities are now finally starting to connect with partners who can help identify and connect the technology and processes tailored to provide the results they seek prior to implement solutions that more quickly touch and benefit residents.

By starting with the simple and, in many cases, the unsexy technologies, the building blocks toward full value can be created. With the anchor infrastructure such as permitting and licensing, human capital management and utilities addressed, the public sector can get to a risk/innovation balance of pragmatically flashy.

Once the smart city focus has redirected away from technology and toward technology accessibility and how to use it, the disconnect between what city residents want or see value in can be more readily addressed. Education, inclusion, equity, and responsiveness will lead to smart city approaches that address the urgent needs of people whose needs are even more urgent due to the pandemic. Community engagement provides a foundation for expansion of data and technology use and building trust for setting smart city priorities and adopting tools and processes designed for the tasks.

Finally, the leadership and learning of the larger municipalities can be modeled by smaller cities to more effectively use integrated information and communication technology to support the economic, social, and environmental goals of the community.

While the definition of smart city will no doubt continue to evolve, getting into the conversation is key. 

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