Modernizing the approach to smart cities

Cities around the world have recognized the potential of incorporating smart technologies into services. However, some cities are much more successful than others in doing so. At a recent conference involving Smart City program managers, a few key approaches emerged for cities moving to smarter thinking.

“The betterment of society is not a job to be left to a few. It’s a responsibility to be shared by all.”
– David Packard

A focus on outcomes
One reason that was frequently cited for failure was the lack of focus on outcomes. Unsuccessful smart city programs have often been involved in too many proofs of concepts with technology demonstrations, with very little design thinking or with very little focus on solving actual problems. The smartest cities, by contrast, focus on their citizens’ needs. They want to make city life better—and they prioritize the outcomes that will deliver that for their citizens.

The best smart city programs have transformed the way their residents are connected to goods, services, and employment. Smart city planning means finding ways to deal with congestion, waste and water management issues, emergency response systems and transport. The best cities have moved to deliver resilience: moving from mitigation to avoidance, and planning for long term sustainability and growth.

Delivering ‘livability’ for urban citizens is an important guiding principle. Indicators of livability include safety, cleanliness, healthcare availability, and affordable housing. Effective land use is another important element of livability. Another important resource is land/space. Green spaces, well-planned community housing, high quality healthcare facilities, and wastewater management all need adequate space. These must be coupled with the provision of utilities, and a high level of resilience to make a thriving city.

A crucial element of prioritizing investments is to objectively scrutinize the opportunities and innovatively use data and develop a roadmap for future scenarios.

Using data to drive change
Using data and analytics can help cities make better decisions about how to provide critical services, provide sustainable development and enable citizens to carry out interactions efficiently and effectively. Artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IOT) are useful in strengthening cities against future shocks and threats. This is achieved through reduced latency in decision making, vastly improved situational awareness and automated responses.

The best smart cities combine data from multiple sources and fields to support decisions. Cutting-edge AI techniques extract data from sources such as environmental sensors, economic indicators, and population information. This is integrated and modelled to analyze different aspects of urban livability. Data sources are not restricted to typical statistical data but may also include visual data sources such as street view images, textual data streams such as social media messages or service requests, and unstructured information from the municipality records.

From systems to ecosystems
Within many cities, you will find silos within the city government. These departments have built systems that serve their purpose. These have often been developed over many years, using in-house expertise and niche sector-specific providers and technologies. However, it is now important to move beyond this single-department approach.
Instead, city managers need to be looking at cross-functional collaboration using data and decisioning. For example, it is helpful to look at sustainability, health, and wellbeing together. Air quality management is closely linked to both healthcare and city infrastructure and transport. Sound and visual pollution is linked to mental and social wellbeing. You cannot tackle these problems without looking at the root causes.

An ecosystem-driven smart city successfully manages the interplay between citizens, employees, processes, technology, and stakeholders in delivering desired outcomes for citizens. They also often require collaboration between private businesses, technology providers and the city planners. The ‘smart city’ is therefore not ‘owned’ exclusively by the city. Other value creators include private sector providers and even citizens themselves. Successful and sustainable smart cities take a programmatic approach in engaging all their stakeholders across the ecosystem.

Technology to support outcomes
City planners need to start with outcomes for residents, focused on livability. They must then use technology to deliver these outcomes, through an ecosystem approach. Smart cities must be designed around people, not technology—but technology is the driver that enables delivery.

Cities also need to understand interdependencies, especially when integrating diverse sets of data from operations, safety, security, and utilities providers. This is where AI and IoT technologies play a pivotal role. IoT-based real-time access to data can increase situational awareness through a digital twin or dashboard. AI-driven decision support allows a rapid and automated response to rapidly evolving situations and allocate help where it is needed. Needless to say, a multi-agency response is key to catastrophic events such as flooding or grid failures.

City planners need to combine the ecosystem approach, resiliency, and livability in their strategy for smart city initiatives. By paying attention to all aspects of change: strategy, data, people, process, and technology, cities will see greater success in their initiatives. But the outcome for citizens is the most important element. Cities in which citizens feel comfortable and engaged are livable cities.


Asif Lakdawala
Principal Industry Consultant – IOT Global Operations

About SAS in IoT

SAS empowers organizations to create and sustain business value from diverse IoT data and initiatives, whether that data is at the edge, in the cloud, or anywhere in between. Our robust, scalable, and open edge-to-cloud analytics platform delivers deep expertise in advanced analytics – including AI, machine learning, deep learning, and streaming analytics – to help customers reduce risk and boost business performance. Learn more about our industry and technology solutions at