By Stephen Goldsmith Matthew Leger • September 11, 2019

Across the world, the smart city movement is gaining traction. From smaller-scale efforts like smart garbage trucks in Cambridge and open data in Seattle, to larger-scale efforts like Smart Dubai and e-Estonia, technology, data, and digital tools are now playing a lead role in municipal service delivery and innovation.

Lots of hype and attention have surrounded these initiatives due to their bold vision for what the future of cities could look like and the problems they plan to address. A few examples include:

However, as this movement grows, the same technologies powering transformation for good, if not properly controlled, also provide the means for broad invasions of privacy, discrimination, and cyber manipulations. These risks, coupled with the fact that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of smart city best practices or rules, and the widely uneven maturity levels of cities across the globe, breeds confusion about what smart cities are supposed to be. Because of this, as with any bold innovation, critics focus their attention on imperfections that cloud the public’s understanding of what advantages smart cities should deliver. The result is fear, distrust, and sometimes backlash that inhibits municipalities from implementing meaningful and beneficial reforms. 

To reach a future smart city state that produces truly remarkable, positive change city leaders must:

  1. Establish and promote a clearer narrative demonstrating the advantages/benefits to constituents 

  2. Chart an informed and prudent path toward becoming a truly smart city

  3. Set transparent rules created with community and expert guidance that protect privacy, security and equity.

Constituents Have Serious Concerns about Smart Cities

Smart city projects are popping up all over the world, drawing the attention of constituents who often express an uneasiness about what this means for them. In fact, 66 percent of Americans say they would not want to live in a smart city, according to a survey by Vrge Strategies. Among the primary fears according to the survey are:

  • A tech company-takeover of local communities – Many Americans fear they would lose control of their communities’ futures if they give too much power and influence to the tech companies dominating the smart city revolution.

  • Increased vulnerability to cyberattacks – More connected devices increase the threat of cyberattacks significantly. People across the world have woken up to what seems like hundreds of stories about cyberattacks over the last several years alone. Cities like San Francisco, Baltimore, and Atlanta have recently fallen victim to large scale attacks that crippled their ability to function properly, and as people see these events happening, they fear their city and their information will be at greater risk in a smart city. 

  • Mass personal data collection and surveillance – Stories of surveillance states and mass public data breaches in the media like Equifax, Facebook, and CapitalOne have left people concerned about what little private personal information they have left. With IoT devices, sensors, and cameras with facial recognition technology watching most of their moves and collecting data, a loss of privacy and personal freedoms feels very much a threat for many Americans. 

While the grand promises of smart cities are tempting for city leaders to pursue, they must first recognize that the very people they are trying to serve feel this revolution will make them and communities more vulnerable. We must take a step back and build trust in the technology and the vision if the smart city movement is going to progress and achieve its desired goals.

Look no further than Toronto’s Quayside project in partnership with Sidewalk Labs to see what happens when a tech company takes over a neighborhood and insufficiently works with residents to establish shared goals and build trust in the process. As James Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Michele Jolin of Results for America recently said in US News and World Report, “America needs big ideas for the big challenges we face. But if we don't tackle the trust gap—both by engaging people in devising solutions and ensuring we have public institutions strong enough to getting the job done—then we'll never get from talking (or tweeting) to serious impact.”

 A Citizen-Focused Narrative - Making the Case for Digital Transformation  

Local government leaders are uniquely positioned to gain the trust of constituents compared to any other level of government or tech company. According to the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans say they view their local leaders in a favorable light and 73 percent feel that candidates for local office positions are well-qualified to do the job. City leaders need a new narrative that demonstrates how smart cities benefit communities and clearly articulates how these lofty goals will be achieved.

Although the concept of introducing “smart” technologies into local government services has become a trend, the advantages clearly do not yet feel that appealing. Constituents’ natural skepticism of government and tech company intentions requires city leaders to craft a narrative that goes beyond “smart” to focus on what that truly means. What constituents truly value is a responsive city: a city that acts in a timely manner, personalizes services, utilizes data and evidence to design and implement new policies, and generates economic opportunity more equitably. None of these advantages can be produced without a digitally smart city. Without this capability, cities risk maintaining the rickety status quo which ensures an increasingly less trusted, less effective local government. The case for digital transformation in cities requires a deeper dive into what will make a city truly smart and innovative to the benefit of constituents.

Cities must paint a picture of a future where sensors gather data that helps maintain critical infrastructure at less cost to taxpayers; a future where at-risk children are better protected by digitally-literate, data-savvy social services workers; a future where air and water quality, especially in poor neighborhoods, is effectively monitored in real-time and improved on demand before public health crises reach resident’s homes; a future where public officials make faster, proactive decisions to better serve residents and preempt problems. The emphasis here is on the benefit these initiatives provide to the very people on whose trust good governance depends.

Putting smart city projects on pause or canceling them altogether due to citizen concerns would do serious damage to the economy by stemming innovation, giving other cities a competitive advantage, and failing to optimize public service delivery at the very time that demands for public services are increasing. This narrative must also explicitly recognize the inherent risks and challenges associated with smart city projects (i.e., data privacy, cybersecurity, etc.) and how the city plans to address them.

Chart an Informed and Prudent Path Toward Your Smart City Future

Beyond the fears identified above, city officials should consider additional important steps toward building trust and becoming a truly “smart” city. Among others, these include:

  • Funding for the short and long-term – Despite tight budgets, big smart city investments need to be made today to build up digital infrastructure and equip municipal employees to use new technology, systems and data to support these initiatives. Funding investments in smart city infrastructure and technology requires not only heavy upfront investment, but also long-term, creative funding or financing plans.  

  • Establishing program management and data analytics offices with highly trained staff – Digital transformations are incredibly difficult and are rarely successful. In fact, less than 30 percent of information technology transformation efforts have proven completely successful in terms of improving business performance. This is true even for “digitally savvy industries, such as high tech, media, and telecom” according to McKinsey & Company. In addition, using digital processes to make an obsolete process somewhat better shouldn’t be the objective. Serious business process reengineering must accompany smart city transformations in order to break the status quo and make government work more efficiently.

  • Drafting a smart city plan that jointly aligns city and resident goals, and that lays out strategic milestones including how objectives will be funded, achieved, and sustained – All local government leaders know that strategic plans are important for driving long-term initiatives. It is critically important here that they do not start planning, spending, or building smart city initiatives without resident input. Traditional public town hall meetings often do not gather meaningful citizen input, and so officials marketing a smart city approach need to put in place new approaches to build resident understanding and support. This outreach should include the use of digital channels like social media, public comment boxes, and online forums. To ensure confident expectations are set, these plans should address the long-term sustainability of the initiatives including funding, maintenance, and future adaptations. Community engagement activities must also clearly outline the benefits and challenges associated with each project or milestone.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – As projects move forward, local leaders need to communicate their progress and demonstrate frequent, and publicly recognizable victories in order to build constituents’ confidence. Other components include transparency concerning challenges or roadblocks, details about a project’s life cycle, and live demonstrations of what the new initiative has accomplished to date. These steps need to be tailored to different stakeholders including advocacy groups with special interests and public employees who need to be reassured concerning what it will take for the project to come to fruition. 

With taxpayer dollars at risk, cities must ensure that their constituents who will benefit from the transformation fully understand the benefits and not just the risks. They also must ensure that more detailed presentations tailored to different stakeholder audiences are delivered to allow modifications and reassurance concerning matters important to them. 

Establish Rules Protecting Equity, Privacy and Security 

To build trust in smart city plans, city leaders need to establish the necessary restrictions and rules governing compliance and the protection of citizen equity, privacy, and security. 

The following components are critical for building trust:

  1. Compliance

    • Assign to the internal audit, or another designated office, the responsibility for forensic audits to determine procedural compliance.

    • Publish rules on municipal websites and leave them open to public comment/review.

    • Establish processes for ensuring ongoing review and updates of existing rules.

    • Establish stakeholder groups that include both experts and community leaders to monitor compliance and develop ongoing rules. 

  2. Equity

    • Use AI to discover existing bias in city services and take corrective action.

    • Establish a process to constantly challenge whether AI and algorithms are developed in a way that reduces the chance for misuse or bias.

    • Embed an equity component into every smart city initiative to ensure they work to address social and economic inequities.

  3. Privacy

    • Clearly establish rules concerning anonymity and aggregation of data. Take into consideration the risk of reidentification. Understand different contexts under which the information is secured.

    • Establish rules for third party contractors on information ownership and intellectual property.

    • Establish clear periods of retention for information to reduce the amount of data retained for long periods of time.

  4. Security

    • Prioritize high quality security measures for IoT devices, data security, and computer networks as a pillar of all technology-focused smart city projects.

    • Limit access to certain information.

    • Ensure constituents maintain control of private information and that personally identifiable information is not accessible to the general public.


Until recently, the label of “smart” sufficed to attract mayoral attention. As privacy abuses and security incidents more regularly fill the headlines, informed advocates and the general population both want more clarity about the process and the vision of becoming a smart city. Beyond process and vision, constituents primarily need reassurance about how these projects are designed to help them, and how their privacy and personal data will be used and protected.  To accelerate the smart city movement, it’s up to elected city officials to make the case for these initiatives and paint a more beautiful picture of their future city that resonates with the people who elected them.