In China and the Middle East new cities are being built from scratch, while others around the world continue to get more crowded. Managing waste, water quality, traffic, pollution, public safety and assets have always been a headache, but never more so than now.

Technology can help, but it shouldn’t be the starting point in any smart city strategy. To succeed, a smart city needs to put its people at the centre of its strategy and then shape technology to fulfil that strategy.

Technology as the enabler, people as the drivers

New technologies like 5G, Cellular IoT, V2x, AI, Machine Learning and Big Data are key enablers for many new applications in smart cities. Some of these are already available, while others are on their way.

However, the speed of deployment has so far been slow and mainly dominated by projects with fragmented technologies. To achieve organic and strategic growth, the solution is quite simple: build projects around people.

Simple, yet it’s rarely done. Indeed, it has been much easier to start from the technologies available in the market and imagine all sorts of applications: street lighting, smart parking, autonomous driving and so on, rather than to start with the problems.

Starting with technology slows progress

When companies start with a technology, the result is a fragmented market, with suppliers trying to lock local councils into proprietary solutions. This makes it harder to identify benefits from each initiative, and therefore harder to build positive business cases for the decision-makers.

A better approach for smart cities is similar to the one Steve Jobs defined for successful products in one of his famous speeches: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to sell it.”

How do a city’s people want to live?

Any good smart city strategy needs to put its people at the core from the planning stage. Questions regarding how people want to live and interact with the city must be asked and answered.

For example, what levels of pollution can be tolerated? Should there be an electric vehicle priority? To what extent should the elderly be supported? How can the city be made safer?

Only then can the right strategy be put in place, one that will work for the long-term. A strategy without people at its centre and without buy-in from the residents is at a much higher risk of falling to political change.

Sell solutions, not products

This shift of perspective from technologies to people will have a big impact on suppliers. Every city is different. People living across the world have different priorities and needs, so there cannot be one product that fits every situation.

Take as an example a sensor for smart parking that is placed on the tarmac to sense the presence of a car. This will work fine in many places, but for cities that prioritise electric cars, it may prove wiser to instead install smart EV charging stations. These can act as a Point of Presence, not only for charging the vehicle but also to collect more details about the parking place and even the environment.

There is a clear and increasing need to offer solutions rather than products. Such solutions need to be customized depending on the needs of each single local council, but they should be based on standard technologies. Only in this way can we move from a fragmentation in technologies that slows down deployments to a fragmentation in solutions based on standard technologies, which will have the opposite effect. Technology consultants, design houses, and system integrators will play a central role in achieving this.

The importance of long-term thinking

Implementing a successful smart city strategy also requires a change in vision from local councils and central governments.

The problem is quite similar to that of the smart home, albeit on a far greater scale. If someone buys the latest gadgets that do one specific thing well, but they don’t play together nicely, it will cause all kinds of headaches for them further down the line. Someone who has properly planned their smart home may enjoy greater benefits even if the individual products are not as good.

This situation is amplified in a city. Where smart city technology really comes into its own is at the city-wide level. If the traffic control is linked to proximity cameras that are linked to lighting, all of which talk to the same city-wide control room, the efficiency, security and economic benefits are far greater.

Local councils act as the orchestrator with many different smart city projects running in parallel. Staying consistent to the strategy across initiatives is crucial, as is avoiding the temptation of short-term benefits.

Avoiding short-term shiny objects

“How much can we buy with this budget?” is rarely the right question. While spending millions on a fancy smart traffic light system today will give short-term benefits, it could end up costing a lot more in the long run.

The question of compatibility must be addressed. Does the proposed new system fit into any existing IoT infrastructure? Can it connect to existing analytics and management systems, or does it require a whole new set of control systems? Is it secure and scalable for the long-term? Once again, the use of standard solutions such as Bluetooth Low Energy, Cellular IoT, and 5G will help to meet compatibility requirements.

Smart city investments should be judged based on the long-term fit into a people-first strategy for a specific city, and not on short-term cost. The smart cities that succeed will be the ones with this long-term strategy in mind, and people as main driver for innovation.