Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities

A partnership of the United States Conference of Mayors and NYU Wagner.


Technology has long promised vastly improved urban life and prosperity, with visions of dramatically improved citizen services and the ability to predict everything from where the next water main break to anticipating the flow of traffic. But technology also has the potential to compromise privacy, confidentiality, and security—and to incur significant cost overruns. All of the virtues and potential pitfalls are balled up in the notion of “smart cities”: a banner heading that promises great things for localities that assume it. But what does smart cities really mean? Is it a specific program with clear directives or a clarion call to embrace data and tech in bold new ways?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle and this handbook aims to address concretely what that means. The handbook is
the product of what municipal leaders have learned over the past two years meeting at the Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities: a convening and learning space for municipal executives around the country. This handbook covers a lot of ground in a small amount of space including an overview of the Institute itself, definitions, strategies, and examples.

Readers of this handbook should find something surprisingly absent in the urban policy field: a practical all-in-one review of the possibilities and pitfalls of smart cities. This document is not exhaustive, but it does provide clear, concrete guidance for municipal chiefs and local leaders everywhere looking to deploy data and technology to address some of the most critical challenges facing cities.

The urgency to get smart cities right has only accelerated as cities grapple with a global pandemic, racial bias, and an economic recession—all areas that can be greatly improved with effective deployment of advanced data and technology platforms.

The Institute

An overview of the institute, its characteristics, and how it works.

Smart Cities

Our definition, principles, the pitfalls to avoid, and the methods we use.


This report was written by Neil Kleiman with Alexander Shermansong. Research was provided by David W. Burns, Racquel Forrester, and Alexia Anush Nazarian. Special thanks for input from Amy Lee at Verizon and Story Bellows, John Tolva, and Kate Garman at CityFi. Gordon Campbell, Christina Powell, Molly Turner, and Jascha Franklin-Hodge provided invaluable feedback and guidance. The Institute and this handbook are produced independently by the Conference and NYU, without any editorial review by sponsors.


The work of the Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities is in part possible by sponsorship from Verizon.

Why Do We Need a Smart Cities Institute?

Currently, there is no fully developed and executed smart city anywhere. There are no clear standards, financing strategies, or even definitions. In this vacuum, many municipal leaders are feeling smart city fatigue as they try and make sense of the barrage of pitches from vendors and private consultants now populating this field.

Despite the confusion, a number of cities are making significant progress, as well they should. If harnessed effectively, new technology tools can vastly reduce crime, boost job creation, and improve public transit, among other potential problems these tools have the potential to solve. But true progress demands mayors understand these issues on their terms and how they apply to their city. They need clarity of vision, concrete budget, and operations plans and an honest appraisal of the many potential partners.

The Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities (ISC) will address these issues. It will establish a smart city model approach that, for the first time, is led by mayors themselves. At a more concrete level, the ISC will provide knowledge, practical skills, resources, and best practices in a peer-to-peer setting. The Institute will flip the current industry-led dynamic; it will position municipal leaders to define priorities and build a model that accelerates progress for American cities.

Institute Overview

The Institute is a collaboration of the New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM). It will be an expert-facilitated and peer-driven learning environment where mayors will leave with a clear path forward for a major initiative, a framework for approaching smart city opportunities citywide, and equally important, a set of guiding principles to improve their relationship with vendors and future tech partners.

USCM is uniquely situated to convene mayors as it is widely known as the organization that routinely brings city leaders together to identify and problem-solve the nation’s greatest challenges. And New York University is recognized as a leader in the smart cities field having established an entire academic program dedicated to urban analytics, hosting the country’s most widely used secure data facility and developing customized executive education for public officials around the country.

Constructing a Citywide Approach

The Institute has a two-fold mission: it is both visionary and tactical. At a high level, mayors will use real-world initiatives to inform operations, financing, and human resources citywide. Participating mayors will create a guiding blueprint that can be practically implemented. Specifically, we will address the following cross-cutting smart city issues:

  • Financing plans that reallocate existing dollars and identifies new funding opportunities

  • Operations plan to redeploy and train staff

  • Partnership strategy to best leverage local universities and employers

  • Resident engagement approach that builds input and trust

  • Digital inclusion roadmap to provide wide access and accessibility

These core elements will be constructed with an eye towards practical application to specific priority areas — such as homicide reduction, expediting permit application, or improving mobility — mayors will develop on-site at the Institute and bring back home. Each mayor will bring one such initiative to ISC, which will be presented as case studies. Recommendations for each case will be developed through a mix of expert-led discussions run like a clinic: city leaders will directly engage experts and field leaders to clarify plans and add operational detail, and working with peers will allow mayors to both sharpen their own initiatives and provide feedback based on real-world experience.

Developing Practical Tools and Approaches

Ultimately, ISC is about empowering mayors to be better leaders. As such, project and strategy specific guidance will be complemented by a set of skills and principles to guide future work in this area. Mayors will receive (and contribute to) a ‘utility belt’ — with the ability to pull out the right tools and approach based on specific program areas. To ensure mayors have these tools the Institute will provide the following:

  1. Budget Analysis – Clarifying where existing dollars can be reallocated to maximum effect
  2. Project Action Plan – Detailed course to advance at least one major new initiative  
  3. Ten Tech Prompt Questions – Set of tough, probing questions mayors can use with staff, vendors, partners, and providers
  4. Resident and Community Engagement Strategy – Customized plan to engage residents and community groups around new technology activities  
  5. Resource Guidebook – Digital yellow pages of experts and leading city administrators  

Additionally, the ISC will continue to provide technical assistance, share best practices and evaluate progress following the Institute through a series of webinars, one-on-one technical assistance and future workshops at the United States Conference of Mayors’ Annual Meetings.