By Samuel S. Olens and Crawford G. Schneider

The minds of entrepreneurs, technologists and new wave urbanists are consumed with the future of “Smart Cities”. However, too often, visions of Smart Cities are disassociated from the citizens themselves. That said, it is indisputable that modernizing the digital, physical and social infrastructure of a community can result in widespread social benefits for citizens, and with the sophistication of emerging technologies it would be unwise not to explore new mechanisms for providing public services.

However, the pursuit of a Smart City should not conflict with Smart Governance. Before investing in the newest technology, local governments must first consider the tangible benefits to their residents. To do so, governments must distinguish between wants and needs. Governmental priorities, commonly referred to as needs, should not be altered. All citizens need quality education, mobility, access to health care, utilities and a sense of safety. These fundamental priorities are, in and of themselves, costly and complex and as such, robust examination of Smart City solutions is necessary to ensure they directly address a demonstrated need and work to solve governments’ core complexities. Wants, which may be a function of a limited number of highly motivated citizens, should optimally be satisfied by the private sector, whereas needs, the primary function of a responsible government, should be addressed by elected officials or their designees.

In addition to internal cost-benefit analyses, governments must explain the intended purpose of newly deployed technologies to the citizenry. Civic involvement is essential before any effort is undertaken that will, as technology often does, fundamentally alter citizens’ lives.

The best technology and communications systems are meaningless without the support and buy-in of residents and businesses. Without an all-encompassing focus on the community’s needs, solutions may be misguided. For example, investments in autonomous public transit will prove useless without consumer trust. At present, according to polls conducted in 2018, over 60 percent of Americans are wary of autonomous vehicles, yet the technology largely dominates public discourse on transportation. There is no doubt autonomy will have massive benefits. However, from a governance perspective, before investing public monies in a nascent technology, the use must be explained and demonstrated through pilots and public awareness programs.

Smart technologies are frequently dependent upon data sharing and insight into consumer behavior. This may be viewed as intrusive and unnecessary unless the government is able to identify and articulate (1) ways in which the technology benefits citizen lives, and (2) how sensitive data will be protected. Without adequate public discourse, even predictive crime technologies, gunshot sensors and policy trackers can be seen as intrusions by “big brother” rather than prudent public safety investments. Moreover, deployment of 5G infrastructure, which is the essential platform for many new smart technologies, may greatly increase the efficiency of government services by providing predictive analytical capabilities, but the need, cost-benefit analysis and comparative applications must be considered and explained prior to government investment.

Adequate public discourse requires more than simply holding a townhall where citizens are invited to voice their opinions for an hour or so. Listening to citizens, while of primary importance, is not in and of itself sufficient. Elected and appointed officials have a vital role serving as a convener. Smart solutions demand intra-government, inter-government and public-private collaboration. Cooperation between all three tiers is required to bring about success. Too often, private sector innovators assume that technological benefits are self-explanatory. They are deep in the weeds of the technologies they develop on a daily basis, and thus may forget to explain, in layman’s terms, why and how their product improves lives. Similarly, governments are sometimes prone to “kneejerk” regulation when a new mode of transport or a novel health care service or other proposed change to city operations doesn’t neatly fit into a 10- or 15-year strategic plan. By engaging in productive conversations with all stakeholders, governments will make smarter investment decisions and products will enter the market with less the fear of regulatory or consumer backlash.

There is an important balancing act that governments must strike in allocating financial resources and municipal assets to improve city operations for the benefit of its constituents. Inclusive, collaborative engagement with technologists, government agencies and departments, and stakeholders in the community who will be affected by proposed technologies will help keep people, governments and businesses moving in the same positive direction, and will ensure that scarce financial resources are allocated appropriately.

A smart city is the result and an end, not an effort or goal.

Click here for additional resources and information from Dentons’ Smart Cities & Communities Initiative and Think Tank.

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