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5 Takeaways from the Regional Smart Cities Workshop

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the regional smart cities workshop at the Microsoft campus. Pulled together by Bellevue, Redmond, eCityGov Alliance, and others, this summit was a chance for regional cities, big and small, to learn about technology’s growing role in municipal operations and about the opportunities and risks that presents. Below are some key insights I learned from the event.

First though, a little context. The term “smart city” is a somewhat loose and flexible concept that refers to technology’s, and specifically connectivity’s, increasing role in municipal operations – everything from intelligent traffic light systems to infrastructure monitoring programs to various local government apps for citizens. As the Smart Cities Council describes it, “a smart city uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance its livability, workability, and sustainability.” While the language we use to talk about it often feels advanced and elevated, the reality is that technology has found its way into every community, no matter the size, and this will only continue to be the case. So, even if these ideas initially seem extraneous to your community, I encourage you to entertain them, as they can help you develop a more comprehensive picture of how technology influences and impacts the work your local government does now, and will do moving forward.

1. Smart technology is becoming increasingly cheaper and easier to implement.

One huge takeaway for me was that the cost of smart technology has dropped dramatically over the past few years. Much of this is driven by the rise of cloud computing, which has completely dissolved the need for organizations to develop massive in-house infrastructure systems to manage their data and programs. This has also made it easier for governments to purchase services a la carte, allowing them to customize their systems to meet their needs and resources. Perhaps it goes without saying, but security risks can also be drastically reduced (at least at some levels) when a small agency, with limited IT staff, can now easily drop all its information onto the server of a massive company with teams of cybersecurity experts.

2. Communities don’t just want smart cities, they expect them.

There’s no way around it, technology is now ubiquitous. Recent studies show that younger generations are increasingly getting their news and information almost entirely from social networks, while a full 20% of Americans are online “almost constantly,” a statistic that jumps to 36% for those between 18 and 29 years of age.

In this environment, governments need to be investing in technology not because it is progressive or novel, but because it is a necessity to keep citizens engaged and interested in your community. If your citizens can’t report potholes through a quick app, they may not get reported and will remain unfixed. If they can’t pay for downtown parking without using coins, they may choose to shop elsewhere, hurting your economic development strategy. And how do you expect to attract or retain young, tech-savvy employees if they are required to do manually what they know can be automated?

And lest you rural communities think you have a little more leeway here, according to BroadbandNow, over 93% of Washington residents have access to wireless internet and a full 99.3% have broadband service. We’re all connected these days.

3. Trust is a foundational component of smart city success.

I didn’t keep track, but I’d wager that the most common word mentioned at the workshop was “trust.” Citizens may want technology, but they are also highly aware of the privacy and security risks that come with it. More technology entails more data, and more data, even if it isn’t personally-identifiable data, allows for more intrusive and controversial practices (see Chicago PD’s “heat list”). To avoid citizen backlash and unintended consequences, it is paramount that you outline an explicit policy for how your government can and cannot utilize technology and data. A great example is the Seattle Privacy Initiative.

4. Cybersecurity is only getting more complex and important.

Cloud computing and other systems are making some cybersecurity measures easier, but the more connected your city is, the higher the risk of someone hacking into one system and gaining access to others. One workshop speaker pointed out that this is a particular problem for operational technology (OT) – such as your streetlight or water grid monitoring systems – compared to the more traditional IT systems, where we invest most of our security efforts.

This isn’t to scare you out of leveraging technology in your city, but rather to remind you that it needs to be done with caution and care. In our 2015 cybersecurity research project, we found that many of Washington’s local governments were woefully under-investing in cybersecurity and that elected official and leadership awareness of the risks and threats left something to be desired.

In today’s world, cybersecurity should be a constant part of the conversation for all aspects of government operations. And any new project should come with adequate cybersecurity resources.

5. Successful smart city implementation requires solutions-oriented thinking.

Hopefully, if you’ve made it this far, you’re enthusiastic about making your city more tech-savvy, but you may be thinking, where do we begin? I cannot reiterate this enough: start with a clear and narrow scope. It became evident from speaking with vendors at the workshop that the most successful projects they worked on were ones where the problem that the organization was trying to fix was very explicit. As with any project, defining your objective will ensure that you don’t overbuild a system that is too expensive and too complex for your team to maintain.

The flip side of this is to always think outside the box when considering your options. If you can imagine it, there probably is someone out there doing it already. The Smart Cities Council’s case studies provide some interesting examples of smart city technology in action. Get familiar with the smart city landscape and consider how it could address some of your city’s challenges and problems.

Questions or comments about smart cities? Post them in the comment section below or email me directly at

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About Josh Mahar

Josh served as a Communications and Outreach Coordinator for MRSC and wrote about social media, government performance, and other local government topics. He no longer works for MRSC.