Smart cities and vendors are navigating new technologies and relationships

WASHINGTON, D.C.–Public-private partnerships are seen as being key to smart city initiatives, and cities and vendors have to navigate — and often, create — new types of relationships, procurement processes and funding mechanisms that go alongside the new technologies that they are seeking to leverage.

And in this new world, the city-vendor relationship looks more like a 10 to 30-year marriage than just a transactional contract, according to speakers at Smart Cities Week D.C.

Bob Bennet, chief innovation officer for Kansas City, Missouri, said that his city has a major request for proposal for a smart city initiative in review by an evaluation team. He described the partner relationship that Kansas City is seeking as a “sea change in terms of how we interact and a sea change in terms of how we both benefit from this relationship.” Kansas City already has a 54-block area that is covered by a public-private infrastructure partnership, with the city providing access to its dark fiber and Sprint providing public Wi-Fi. 

“We are looking for someone … for a 10 to 30-year partnership,” Bennett said, adding that cities are now “partners and competitors” in the smart city space and that companies can simply make proposals with an eye to short-term gains. “You’re going to have to marry the city, and you’re going to have to be with us for the next 10 to 30 years,” he said.

Participants during a panel on collaboration were asked about what they saw as the biggest risks around smart cities and brought up pressure and potential distraction that smart city projects could pose to local governments.

Cities are “under a tremendous amount of pressure to do smart cities stuff,” said Frank Johnson, chief digital officer and CIO for the Baltimore City Office of Information and Technology, because being considered a smart city can encourage companies to invest in a city or move there. But, he went on, he saw the biggest risk to smart cities being that “you just can’t afford to be wrong” — and that for all the talk at such events about cities needing to be willing to try projects and fail like private enterprises do, “swinging and missing” with large investments isn’t seen as acceptable when it comes to taxpayer-funded projects.

“The technology is by far the easiest part,” said Johnson — it’s putting together the people, plans and investor partners, and “change management” that’s hard and requires resources and time, he added.

Barney Krucoff, interim CTO for the government of the District of Columbia, said that he saw the biggest risk of smart city initiatives as “losing track of the fundamentals that we need to do every day.” D.C., he said, has information systems that are aging and need to be upgraded — smart cities efforts try to add new capabilities, he pointed out, but he was concerned about the risk of distraction from basic foundational services that are already in need of resources.

Still, when it came time for Wendy Gnenz, CIO of the city of Edmonton, Canada , to describe what she thought was the biggest risk of smart cities, she answered simply, “Not doing it.” 

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