Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities

Smart Cities: Mindset, Activities, and Pitfalls

A smart city mindset to guide your efforts


“Smart Cities” more than any other moniker in the last half-century has ignited the imagination and sparked new programming from coast to coast. But good luck finding one clear definition of the phrase, let alone an agreed-upon strategy for enacting an effective smart city plan. Remarkably, for such an oft-used phrase, there is little consensus on basic terms and there is no sole go-to organization, consultancy, or web site that mayors can turn to for practical guidance. So we begin this report with the one simple question mayors often ask: what do “smart cities” mean?

We offer a pared-down definition:

Smart cities use data and technology to make better decisions, resulting in a more efficient, responsive, and equitable city.

The definition is truly that simple. By saying “use data and technology to make better decisions” we mean that technology is not an end in itself: the data and technology are valuable only so far as they help “to make better decisions” and policies and operational improvements that really matter to constituents.

The second part of the definition: “resulting in a more efficient, responsive and equitable city” is a reminder that smart cities should be designed for the benefit of citizens. And, while the phrasing may seem more aspirational than axiomatic, well-executed data and technology have indeed become the most powerful tool any local leader can deploy to improve results and outcomes.


With a definition and a sense of the history of data and technology, we will now review key principles of an effective smart city strategy.


Smart Cities is still a relatively new concept. Most cities have just scratched the surface of what is possible. And, it is important to remember that each policy area is quite distinct: addressing transit issues with data and technology innovation demands an approach that is quite distinct from housing or criminal justice.


Citizens care about outcomes—is the road smooth enough to drive? Is it safe to walk down the street? Can I open my business easily? But for too long governments only measured outputs (potholes filled, not street smoothness; arrests not perceptions of safety; business licenses, not thriving businesses). With data dashboards, cities can daily—at a glance—review outcome metrics such as road repair and street cleanliness. In the past few years, more and more cities are taking this data to a new level, focusing on outcomes by experimenting with advanced data analytics and visualizations.


Obviously, mayors and other elected officials are put in office to govern. But smart cities demand much more; they need governance. The distinction is subtle, but crucial to effectively advancing data and technology-based initiatives. Governing means government officials control most every aspect of the policy or service; the public sector is fully in charge. Governance may still have government at the center, but responsibility for administering services is shared based on who is best positioned to do what: public officials provide less direct services and focus more on regulating new technologies and pulling in partners when it does not have the sophistication or capacity to directly run programs.


Some officials have a tendency to think tech solutions and initiatives are something way off in another area of decision making that is best left to IT folks and in fact, it is the opposite. Elected and appointed leaders need to pay even more attention. Too often, governments follow a “regulate-and-forget” model when it comes to new technology, putting in one-time effort but not ongoing maintenance. Rather, review processes must keep aligning smart cities initiatives with policy goals. The good news is recent data and tech advances make continual learning and improvement not only more important but also much easier.


Mayors, like all public officials, are drawn to the quickest and most visible win. In smart cities, this often comes from a bold, new project: an app for residents to click a photo of street disrepair and text it to the city or sensors that broadcast precisely when the next bus will arrive. These are excellent projects and should be pursued, but equally important is the enterprise level: city- and organization-wide. Projects should showcase what is possible and be a window into larger, more systemic data and tech-enabled advances. The ultimate goal is using a commitment to smart city work to accelerate citywide reform and improvement efforts,
not a one-off project that can be easily dismissed by future administrations.


This last point is perhaps most surprising, but may be the most important. While smart cities are fundamentally about embracing and deploying data and technology, it is never ever about the technology itself—it is about residents. Technology is not worth advancing for technology’s sake, but only in the service of larger civic goals such as equity, improved race relations, and more accessible service delivery.

Pitfalls to Avoid

As with any innovative or technological effort, there are pitfalls to watch out for. And while there are indeed risks, the five most likely are addressed here with accompanying suggestions of how best to guard against them.

Privacy and cybersecurity risks

The headlines are replete with nightmares of ransomware attacks and other cybersecurity threats. The sad reality is that all systems will be compromised eventually. As the use of technology grows (the platform or footprint expands) there are more risks and more ways to get hacked. Security is important; designing processes for lapses in security is more important. How
will you discover intrusions? What will you do when weaknesses are exposed? The risk is not just to your operations; it’s also to constituents’ data. And as smart city projects vacuum up ever more data, the risks grow. Especially in the way it has become a lot more public: the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, ease of sharing, surveillance. Even before projects get off the ground, privacy concerns can derail worthy efforts.

The fishbowl environment of government is exponentially greater in the world of social media. Public pressure can shut down an effort, so planning for privacy upfront is critical. Are the data you are collecting absolutely necessary for the decisions you’re trying to make? How will personally identified information be limited, anonymized, or destroyed? Finally, do you have a dedicated staff person focused on cybersecurity (which is a very different function than traditional IT)?

Scope creep and cost escalation

Too often, cities are victims of the marketplace and buy what is for sale rather than what they actually need. Frankly, vendors can rip off the unaware buyer. The upfront investment is often quite significant (and if it’s not, the overall cost might actually be much greater). Without strong executive oversight, agencies can add bells and whistles and contracts can get unnecessarily extended. Who on your team is in charge? How does that individual hold others accountable, and what information do you need to ensure the project is going well? Any introduction of technology will beget unintended uses and should be designed to make this easier rather than more painful. But too often we accommodate to technology rather than vice versa. For example, internet-enabled sensors are physical devices and need to be integrated by architects and planners, not programmers and engineers. How are you understanding—and prioritizing—your constituents’ needs?

Ongoing maintenance, training, and sustainability

There is always more enthusiasm for a ribbon-cutting than a renovation. The media and external funders especially love new projects. But smart cities’ efforts are built on the back of core IT infrastructure, and that requires ongoing maintenance and training. As the changes in the world around us accelerate, a strong foundation is ever more critical. And you must plan for sustainability (maintenance, ordinances, workforce development) for your smart cities efforts to have any chance of enduring past your tenure. Unlike a suspension bridge that will last for decades, the lifespan of digital technology is just years. How are you ensuring funding for the annual costs? How are employees developing skills to use technology effectively?

Managing to reality, not data points

With the prevalence of data, it is easy to fall into the trap of glancing at data for the facts we want to see. Too often, officials see “greens” on dashboards or upward trends on charts and assume all is well. But these outputs and data points need to be ground-truthed at the street level. Does data match your constituents’ experiences? When data shows improvements, do staff and citizens genuinely feel them? If dashboards and data systems don’t match experience, new indicators or targets must be developed.

Exacerbating inequities and unintended consequences

It is now widely recognized that algorithms can be just as biased as people, sometimes even more so. In fact, all data have biases, and your team needs to understand the assumptions they are building into data systems. Predictive algorithms and stat programs can exacerbate profiling, quotes, and inequities. What are the current inequities and how will the new systems address these? Who is being left out by the digital divide and how do you implement inclusively? Who is responsible to consistently assess whether bias is being exacerbated or alleviated? Is “who” is engaging with your process reflective of your community as a whole?

Smart Cities Canvas

The mayor is uniquely positioned to initiate and drive smart city programming. To do so, we’ve framed a one-page exercise, the Smart City Canvas, that helps mayors plan, communicate, and achieve data and technology success. The Canvas is deliberately brief to focus on the big picture issues that a mayor must address when advancing a new effort. It begins in the middle, with the Value Proposition that justifies the work, continues on the left with the internal resources and then the right with the external resources. The Canvas can be completed by the mayor personally, in a working session with senior aides, or even with trusted external advisors as at the Institute.

This approach can help introduce smart city concepts into specific departments, new initiatives, or broad policy areas, such as education, economic development, infrastructure management, etc. It also can help embed smart city thinking into the DNA of the entire municipal enterprise. In fact, the Institute specifically aims to use the initiative-level focus as a vehicle for enabling enterprise-level transformation. To do all this we have developed a specific strategic planning platform we call the Smart Cities Innovation Canvas (see blank version below) that we use to guide discussion and work at the Institute and we offer to you here for your local data and technology planning efforts.