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.