Smart cities, harboring the innovation eco-systems of the future

Rishi Bhatnagar pic

Smart cities already have elements of innovation hubs in them. What is missing is a concerted effort to bring these elements together

By Rishi Bhatnagar

As smart city projects take off around the world, a question is frequently asked. How can smart cities turn into hubs that foster innovation? The truth is that we haven’t even started exploring the answers as many smart city initiatives are currently primed towards solving the problems faced by citizens and other stakeholders. A fresh approach is therefore warranted evolve a well etched vision to turn smart cities into innovation enablers of the future.

Data is the place to begin

Smart cities produce daily huge streams of data as citizens engage with Web and/or mobile devices using connected networks. The significance of high caliber data in empowering smart cities cannot be underestimated. Given this context, new approaches to integrate big data streams from both sensors and networks are needed to exploit the big data generated towards fine tuning solutions, improving service delivery and better engaging stakeholders.

Spatial and sentiment elements can be harvested at various levels from data streams and analyzed separately for this purpose. The harvested data minus details that might identify the source or reveal details of citizens can be made available to approved entities that can use it to forecast trends and patterns associated with resource consumption, service use etc.,

Data collection and reporting while promoting transparency can improve stakeholder confidence in such projects.

The service angle

Every aspect of a smart city project offers ample scope for innovation. Take the citizen service area for instance. Constant innovation in improving services and stakeholder engagement can offer many benefits. A codified approach that outlines service cycles and identifies opportunities for improvement (OFIs) towards the end of each cycle can go a long way here. Incentives can be given to entities that evolve newer and efficient service delivery mechanisms within a smart city project to address OFIs.
Foster a culture of cross-functional innovation

Think of smart cities as large enterprises that need to evolve a culture of innovation. This culture can be promoted by enabling stakeholders to engage more often in productive exchange of knowledge, information and practices not just within smart cities but outside it too. The need to reinvent the wheel should be kept to bare minimum and the learning curve kept as small as possible. A hub and spoke model focusing on gathering and sharing information has to be evolved and implemented.

Policy intervention

Loosening regulation, offering incentives to R&D companies and easing SME access to non-debt financing, while providing tax incentives to companies who provide financing to startups can be taken up. Policy makers need to orient themselves towards the greater goal of enabling the creation of special innovation zones so to speak housed in these smart cities.

Too big to fail?

No project should be allowed to run endlessly. But in case of smart cities, as newer aspects get connected and monitored/measured, a project could hypothetically run forever. This is why smart cities need to have a crisp blue print that spells out a clear roadmap to enable digitization in phases in order of pre-determined priority. The road map should be accommodative enough to incorporate newer elements in terms of players and technology.

Participative forums

Open forums that facilitate people’s value creation should be conducted to gather critical mass of citizen and business inputs while promoting interconnected actions and knowledge exchange. Business and technology leaders and other relevant participants should be encouraged to be part of this forum.

Command and control with collaboration and communication

A centralized approach towards managing a smart city that leaves room for innovation is a must. This command and control structure must be able to help stakeholders coordinate and collaborate in addition to running the city. The centralized command and control structure that serves as the heart of a smart city project can also double up as a platform to connect various stakeholders to form an innovation network or value chain.

Winning partnerships and IP

Smart cities projects need to partner many stakeholders including technology providers, civic bodies and universities. They form the core of an innovation eco-system that will evolve as smart cities look beyond resolving civic issues. This core can leverage locally developed solutions to challenges to develop IP. Existing innovation infrastructure in the form of science parks, start-up accelerators and incubators and academic R&D can be linked to develop newer smart city ideas to move towards the next level of evolution.

In instances where cities lack the wherewithal to foster innovation, they can enter into tie-ups with cities confronting similar problems. Start-ups can identify newer opportunities or gaps to be addressed and can take the lead in experimenting with technology for this.

The very essence of smart cities implies stakeholders to develop strategies that include the use of connectivity infrastructures, labs, testbed facilities and participative forums in an inclusive manner. Smart cities should therefore be seen – not just as a chance to improve the lives of citizens but also as an opportunity to create hubs that foster IP, change and a chance to reinvent governance in a using a participative approach. To render smart cities attractive to citizens, businesses and other stakeholders, such projects must put in place a well-defined innovation value chain that encourages participants to contribute their best efforts and available capacity.

Smart cities already have elements of innovation hubs in them. What is missing is a concerted effort to bring these elements together.

The author is President at Aeris Communications (India)