Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities

Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities

Institute Overview

The Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities is one of those rare policy inventions, created by mayors for mayors. The goal was to establish a no-spin, vendor-free zone to clarify smart cities in a way that makes sense to city executives and those who work for them. It all began in 2018 when Columbia, South Carolina Mayor Steve Benjamin was seeking smart city guidance. Benjamin and many of his colleagues at the United States Conference of Mayors knew data and technology had advanced rapidly and that there were many ways new, sophisticated platforms that could substantively improve services. But there was confusion as to what the term even means and, with so many pitches coming in from private vendors, little sense of what exactly are the best ways to embrace data and technology.

And, although many mayoral colleagues had great examples of successful programs, they were all over the map: some in transit, some in public safety; some were transforming services and others failing miserably and incurring massive cost overruns. Most notably few cities had a clear strategic plan guiding these so-called smart city efforts. Even more confounding, many cities had vastly different definitions of what a smart city is, with some taking offense at the term “smart” as it implies their city will be dumb unless they hop on the data and technology bandwagon.

Mayor Benjamin decided to address this challenge. When he assumed the presidency of the Conference of Mayors, he engaged the Conference’s CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran, making this issue a priority with the goal of establishing a mayors’ institute modeled on the long-running and influential Mayors Institute on City Design. The Design Institute, a partnership between the United States Conference of Mayors and the National Endowment for the Arts, focuses on placemaking and integrating design principles into project development. It is a proven program that has been running for over 25 years and is widely credited with sparking the comeback of city centers, bringing a healthy mix of commerce, residential, and cultural activity to the heart of urban America. The newly dubbed Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities aimed to repeat this success for data and technology by advancing a similar set of characteristics.

The Institute creates an invaluable opportunity to troubleshoot our cities’ greatest challenges with fellow mayors and experts, in a small group setting. These are dynamic, no-holds-barred conversations. When something needed to be pointed out–a blind spot or critical issue that one of us didn’t see– someone in the room would say it out loud.

— Mayor Steve Adler, City of Austin

Institute Characteristics

The Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities establishes a unique environment in which a small handful of mayors learn from each other and are matched with an equal number of experts working with them side-by-side throughout the three-day workshop. Other key attributes include:


The Institute begins with a clear articulation of the basics of data and technology. Mayors learn about the history, evolution, and principles that constitute a smart city. Next, a catalog of the most pioneering—and useful—technologies are discussed.


Like the Mayors Design Institute, the mayors come together to construct a major initiative they will bring back home. During the three days together an initiative is constructed almost brick-by-brick by detailing financing, staffing, and specific technologies needed to make it a reality. These specific projects are also used as a window to fully understand the larger implications of data and technology and how they can be deployed throughout the government enterprise.


There is a particular focus on what will be the greatest barriers—whether that be resistance from city council or lack of financing. There is no cherry-coating as mayors and experts jointly problem-solve what will surely be thorny issues that must be addressed.


The Institute dedicates significant time to strategic management: how to engender broad support for new technology initiatives, and how to orchestrate public/private partnerships that will endure and sustain future efforts. Mayors, after all, are the chief executive and are the ones charged with championing new directions.

The Institute has become a space for mayors to learn together, free of the immediate crises at city hall, marketing speak, or vendors pitching them proposals. It was established as an environment that was designed just for them, not one based on the technicalities of smart cities, but based on the major principles and management issues that are uniquely suited for a mayor to lead. Prior to 2018, there was no such forum. Local government organizations like the United States Conference of Mayors have long supported tech-oriented meet-ups at their annual conferences. And there are active networks for almost every type of senior tech official in local government—Chief Information Officers, Chief Data Officers, and Chief Innovation Officers. Each of these job categories has its own separate convening opportunities to meet and share stories of success and failure. But notably absent has been a learning and meeting space just for mayors—for the highest-level official charged with local governance—focused on smart city development.

Mayors, more than anyone else, need to understand data and tech issues and feel comfortable executing on them. Smart city governance demands a shift in leadership: it means looking at the city as an asset, recognizing the value of the city platform, and how to orchestrate and encourage citizen input and participation in new ways. Without a new smart city approach, bottlenecks inevitably form up and down the municipal chain of command. Most senior tech aides will tell you how great the need is for a clearer grasp of data and technology at city hall.

To make the vision of the Smart Cities Institute a reality, the Conference partnered with its long-time partner New York University, an institution with a significant commitment to city innovation. NYU established the nation’s first urban science program as part of a Memorandum of Understanding with local government (New York City); had developed the first-ever data health dashboard for cities; and had just launched a university-wide urban initiative working with municipal leaders around the world. The first Institute was convened in December 2018.

How the Institute Works

The Institute establishes a safe, creative space for mayors to explore and advance new ideas with peers and one-on-one interaction with smart city experts. The institute clears away the noise around smart cities and focuses on what mayors personally need to know and do.

It is deliberately mayors-only in order to focus on the unique role mayors personally play in smart cities transformation (rather than the technical aspects delegated to IT teams and other staff). At the conclusion of each institute session, each mayor has an action plan compiling all the insights and resources from the Institute.

Mayors bring a specific initiative or policy to use as a lens to focus their exploration of smart city concepts and opportunities. To help prepare, one of the leaders of the Institute interviews the mayor and helps her or him identify an initiative. The mayor’s smart city leadership team has joined this call, whether that’s CIO, head of economic development, or others.

A good initiative is a policy challenge or investment opportunity about which the mayor personally is passionate. In past cohorts, mayors have brought issues as wide-ranging as traffic, homelessness, broadband, internet-of-things sensors, downtown revitalization, youth engagement, and more. Following the call, mayors receive a draft write-up about their city and initiative, which will be included in the pre-read packet.

Throughout the Institute, the smart city experts capture the suggestions and resources mayors are hearing into the Smart City Innovation Canvas. Following the workshop, mayors receive this document as well as other resources to lead smart city transformation.

Participant Cities to Date

Akron, OH
Austin, TX
Baltimore, MD
Beaumont, TX
Bridgeport, CT
Columbus, OH
Dayton, OH
Fontana, CA
Gresham, OR
Henderson, NV
Macon, GA
Mesa, AZ
New Bedford, MA
Pittsburgh, PA
Plano, TX
Providence, RI
Rochester Hills, MI
Schenectady, NY
Shreveport, LA
Spokane, WA
Springfield, IL
Stamford, CT
Topeka, KS
Trenton, NJ
West Palm Beach, FL
West Sacramento, CA