Being smart is not enough

Beware the ‘shiny object syndrome’

This is the third in a series entitled The Future of Mobility, a joint project of CommonWealth and Meeting of the Minds, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to build alliances around urban sustainability. 

WHO DOESN’T WANT TO BE SMART?  Whether you’re talking about people or cities, it’s fair to say there’s a strongly shared view that we all aspire be smart.  Of course, there are different ways to define “smart,” different metrics to measure whether a person or place is just passably smart, genius smart, or something in between. No matter how you measure it, everyone, and every place, wants to be known as smart.

When we say a city is smart, we generally mean that it has adopted one or more software solutions to resolve problems or improve efficiencies.  The International Organization for Standardization issued a report on Smart Cities in 2014, offering a useful definition:

The “smartness” of a city describes its ability to bring together all its resources, to effectively and seamlessly achieve the goals and fulfill the purposes it has set itself. In other words, it describes how well all the different city systems, and the people, organizations, finances, facilities ,and infrastructures involved in each of them, are: individually working efficiently; and  acting in an integrated way and coherent way to enable potential synergies to be exploited and the city to function holistically, and to facilitate innovation and growth.

Of course, each city is a unique construct, defined (and motivated) as much by unalterable factors such as geography and history as by the more fluid and changing characteristics of demographics and economies. There’s no magic formula that can be applied in all instances for cities that desire to become smart and sustainable.[1] As a result, the dialogue can often seem ad hoc, the initiatives too scattered and unconnected – what was recently described by an Australian innovation sector leader as “a hodge-podge of projects without a unifying vision to hold them all together.”[2]

Recognizing this, some groups, such as the City Protocol Society and the International Organization for Standardization, are seeking to establish a common language and conceptual approach that can respond to the diversity of scale, environment, and political governance by developing tools and solutions that are generic, acultural, and scalable.

In the first quarter of the 21st Century, there appears to be no limit to technology-driven approaches to improving some aspect of the urban experience.  This leads to what I call “shiny object syndrome” – the magnetic draw of implementing something, anything, that will appear to citizens and the media to be a new and cutting-edge approach to collecting data or delivering services.  As a result, a variety of applications have proliferated, often leaving cities with systems that are not meaningfully connected, or that are scalable only at an unreasonably high cost. Making those systems function in a highly coordinated, efficient, cost-effective, and resilient way is – or ought to be – a principal goal of those engaged in the “smart city” dialogue.

Significant barriers exist that often frustrate this work.  Recent studies in the US and UK have cast light on the principal barriers to city transformation.  Not surprisingly, inadequate funding tops the list, as many cities and regions can barely keep pace with current operation and maintenance needs. Another significant barrier in the way of progress is the chronic lack of cross-departmental collaboration, a consequence of governance structures that remain stuck in 20th Century silos. These barriers cannot be overcome by the private sector.  They need to be grappled with and resolved by the public sector.  That requires leadership willing and prepared to challenge and disrupt old ways of doing business.

What’s needed is a deliberate, focused, short-term effort to reimagine how we fund and provide urban services. This is easier said than done. Political leaders and high-level policy makers are typically in office for brief periods of time.  They have strong incentives to leave legacies and demonstrate success during their limited tenures.  There is little incentive to devote substantial time and effort reimagining and restructuring the system.  Instead, there often is the inclination to be attracted to the “big idea.”  Big ideas are important, and often essential.  Cities thrive, in part, because of successfully implemented big ideas, whether they are Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project, Chicago’s Array of Things initiative, or New York’s Second Avenue Subway.  But big ideas take up a lot of space in the public dialogue and on the public balance sheet, and crowd out worthwhile initiatives of smaller scale that can make a meaningful improvement in the quality of urban life.

Many thought leaders (including folks from Cisco and the City Protocol Society) have argued persuasively that it’s time to move beyond thinking, talking, and planning and toward pilot projects that can prove the worthiness of new ideas, illuminate costs and benefits, and generate public and political support for transformational projects. Following this approach, I propose a set of five principles to guide city officials as they navigate the currents of urban transformation.  These principles can help officials set reasonable, affordable, and achievable goals; implement projects that will provide short-term benefits to cities and citizens; and set the stage for the adoption of larger initiatives that fulfill the ultimate objective of building and maintaining urban centers that are smart, connected, and sustainable.

Using this approach as a guide to policymaking, cities would adopt initiatives that meet the following five principles:

  1. Be modestly scaled
  2. Have high impact
  3. Be achievable in the short to mid term
  4. Be affordable (preferably generating or saving public funds)
  5. Be responsive to changing paradigms (not just innovative, but agile)

These five principles respond to the following assumption: most people want government to tackle and resolve problems that diminish their quality of life on a daily basis.  By definition, this requires a focus not on the “next big thing,” but rather on a series of appropriately scaled initiatives that have a high likelihood of both being achieved and making a high impact by making a positive difference in the reliable, efficient, cost-effective delivery of services.

These principles can be especially powerful if they are applied in a vendor-agnostic manner, optimally based upon an open platform that does not lock the city into a sole source procurement environment. In my experience, the biggest mistake the public sector can make as it adopts new technologies is to adopt proprietary, custom solutions that effectively lock them in to solutions that are, over time, more expensive and less agile in response to changing conditions or circumstances. Setting up public/private organizations that function somewhat (but not completely) separately from city government can often help advance innovation, as long as those organizations are committed to being vendor-agnostic and opening up their own governance boards to empower citizens.

Thinking through how cities and regions like Boston and Greater Boston[3] can advance their transformation to smarter and more sustainable places is one of the goals of a major summit being organized locally by the San Francisco-based group Meeting of the Minds. On June 20, 2017, 120 mobility leaders will convene in Cambridge to discuss the future of mobility in the Boston region. (If you are interested in attending the invitation-only summit, please fill out this application.) While the Boston region continues to remain globally competitive, we are at a unique moment in the history of mobility and transportation. The summit aims to harness the ingenuity and innovation already underway in the Commonwealth, as well as the expertise of invited global thought leaders with best practices directly applicable to Boston’s challenges.

Those of us who are active in this space therefore should be asking, and answering, a number of difficult questions. Can cities and regions transform into truly smart and connected places if they retain 20th Century governance structures? Can they effectively advance sustainability goals if they rely on 20th Century approaches to generating revenue for capital, operations, and maintenance costs? Do established public procurement rules that focus on cost rather than value frustrate creative public sector decision-making? How can we ensure that as cities transform, we do not leave behind many people who struggle to keep pace with rapid change and innovation?

It isn’t enough to aspire to being “smart,” or talk the talk of innovation and sustainability. We need to candidly address the barriers that prevent or frustrate city transformation, barriers that are often rooted in the false expectation that 20th Century approaches to governance and funding will adequately respond to 21st Century initiatives. Following the five principles outlined in this article might be an effective way for all stakeholders to engage this conversation in a meaningful way.

[1] I have proposed a global comprehensive definition of Sustainable Mobility, which I hope will inform the discussion. See:


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3 It is important to consider regions, as well as cities, in the discussion of “smart and sustainable.”  See, e.g.,, for a discussion of Lovable Districts and Cities.  A recent blog on the site addresses this issue in a thoughtful way: see,

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.