4 Steps to Creating a Smart City

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Thoughtful leadership, trust and perseverance are just a few of the principles that make smart cities a success, according to Martin O’Malley, former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor.

Smart cities have become the bastions of technological innovation and a new, better way of living. But as much as the technology underpinning these urban environments gets most of the spotlight, it’s the leadership that will drive execution and usher the transformation of these next-generation urban environments. This new approach to governing can be a tall order, but a simple roadmap can help cities get a head start and arm city leaders with knowledge to solve tomorrow’s challenges

Today, for the first time in history, a majority of the world’s population lives in cities. Projections show that by 2040, 75% will inhabit urban areas that are more connected and more intelligent. This shift toward a more sustainable, greener and better governed city is the result of denizens’ evolving demands — and requires city leaders to stay in lockstep with the changing expectations, says Martin O’Malley, former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor. 

“If more people are going to live in cities, we have to figure out that higher-density of living to also be a better way of living,” he says. 

Here, O’Malley offers his four steps of actions city leaders can take to turn their communities smarter, more livable, more prosperous and more connected. 

Start, Don’t Stop. Sometimes, taking that first step is the hardest part, and paralysis of perfection can only be overcome by simply taking action. “Don’t wait for the perfect data and platform,” O’Malley says. “Pick a common platform, tell people to gather around it and use a regular, cadence of collaboration — and don’t stop.” This is a journey of more timely, accurate information sharing with faster feedback loops to tell you if what you’re doing is working — and not working, O’Malley says.

The second step involves Elevating the Leaders, which means empowering them so they can blaze the trail and execute on the vision. “Create that compelling scoreboard, use the common-place technology that allows you to measure performance to really lift up the leaders in the eyes of their peers and their colleagues,” O’Malley says. “You want the vast majority of any government to be leaning toward the leaders — and not rocking back to the slackers.”

After you have helped raising the leaders, it’s time to Measure Performance. “You want your leaders to rise based on what they do, how they do and how well they do it,” O’Malley says. That means measuring performance and transforming your organization into one that makes decisions based on evidence rather than on how things have been done in the past. Follow the data and see where it takes you and let those decisions be based on performance measurements, O’Malley advises.  

Finally, the fourth action centers around Building Trust. Smart cities can’t exist without a vibrant civic engagement and public trust, O’Malley points out. Over the past 250 years, the political wisdom was that leaders shouldn’t share information because doing so would make them vulnerable. Today, however, the new political wisdom is leaders must always share information because failure to do so would make them vulnerable and overall undermine trust. 

“In the Information Age especially, leaders need to set their default button, if you will, on openness and transparency,” O’Malley says. That also means sharing information in an accessible way. “Tossing out PDFs with impenetrable columns of data isn’t sharing information,” as O’Malley puts it.

Overall, it boils down to a mindset shift. Smart-city leaders should share information with context, clarity and a clear view of proximity — what does it mean to people in their own neighborhood? 

“It’s a bad time for any city leader to be a control freak when it comes to information,” O’Malley says. 

However, leaders need to be aware that while it’s easier than ever to share information, today, data can be compromised and identities stolen without much effort. 

“Leaders have to be very mindful of privacy in this age of data sharing and openness and transparency,” O’Malley says. Safeguards are needed not just to protect data but also to anonymize it to keep citizens safe, he added. 

With the fast-evolving nature of technology, there is still one thing that will remain constant: the need to protect citizens’ most sensitive information.  

“The imperative to protect our privacy isn’t going to go away,” O’Malley says. 

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley is a Smart Governance Advisor to Grant Thornton. His book “Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age” is now available for pre-order.