Although a government can be smart at any level (federal, state, local), in individual domains (environment, public safety, human services, etc) or across multiple domains, one particular spin is the one related to smart city.
Gartner defines a smart city by its sustainable capacity over time to generate economic development: it is an urban area functioning and articulated by modern information and communication technologies in its various verticals, providing ongoing efficient services to its population
Of course a smart local government is an essential component, although not the only one, of a smart city. One area where several urban areas have started becoming smarter is traffic management, by deploying similar road charging schemes to the city center. From Singapore to London, from Stockholm to my home city, Milan, complex and expensive systems have been deployed to charge the right to drive through a given area downtown. The amount charged to each driver contributes to cover operating expenditure and to return on the initial investment.
Now, the characteristic of most smart city investments (be they smart traffic or smart water), which imply substantial infrastructure, complex information systems, challenging architectural and integration requirements, can be justified only in a long term perspective. Further, if one thinks about the investment required to have different smart systems (energy, transport, environment) interoperate to deliver on smart city objectives, the timeframe for returning on those is likely to be even longer.
Indeed vendors that are pursuing this market are trying to structure their offerings in a modular and evolutionary way, in order to overcome their prospects’ resistance to spending significant amounts of money upfront to (possibly) have a return in several years.
The irony is that sometimes, when those hurdles are overcome, systems are deployed and citizens get used to those, politics get in the way.
Over the last few weeks there has been quite an intense political campaign for mayor of Milan. The incumbent mayor was responsible for the introduction of the so-called EcoPass, which is the Milan version of the London congestion charge.
Despite a few hiccups, such as some lack of clarity about the types of cars that would be allowed to drive through the center at no fee, the system has been remarkably successful. However the runner up for mayor made the abolishment of the EcoPass part of his campaign platform.
This seemed to be welcome by most voters: after all we are Italians and the very fact of having to comply with rules when we drive, let alone pay for those, is not something we have in our genes. As a consequence, also the incumbent mayor suggested that she would abolish the EcoPass.
Now that the election is over, we shall see what happens: another thing Italians are not terribly good at is to keep all their campaign promises. In any case, this is an interesting example of how politics can jeopardize a significant, and indeed reasonable smart city investment, in a matter of days. How can local government leaders safely invest in long term, infrastructural projects, to make their cities smarter, if a sudden change of wind direction can pull the plug?
In my view this is one of the thorniest but also most fascinating issues behind the whole concept of smart government.
Governments need to be smart to address long term challenges (such as climate change, declining economic development, or financial sustainability due to huge public debt), but also smart at doing so in an incremental fashion, that delivers value in a shorter timeframe and possibly allow that investment to be leveraged or repurposed for something else.
I wonder whether the elected mayor will think about leveraging the system for public safety or some other purpose, possibly related to the EXPO 2015 that will be held in Milan. For sure, next time somebody proposes something to make Milan a smarter city, it’d better be really smart.
Andrea Di Maio is a vice president and distinguished analyst in Gartner Research, where he focuses on the public sector, with particular reference to e-government strategies, Web 2.0, open government, cloud computing, the business value of IT, open-source software, green IT and the impact of technology on the future of government.