Why the Future of Smart City Development is Regional

BY KAMYA JAGADISH • April 7, 2022

Over the past few years, there has been a rise in regional collaboration for technology projects. These regional organizations are helpful in creating more innovative, scalable, and effective solutions for cities. Solving community problems at the regional level isn’t new: transportation agencies, economic development corporations, and commercial tax districts are a few examples of regional-level organizations. So why is regional collaboration so important specifically for smart technology adoption? We heard from three regional organizations, all members of the multi-state association National Smart Coalitions Partnership, and found that there are five main reasons why the future of smart city development is happening at the regional-level.

1. Most public challenges are boundaryless.

Air pollution does not stop before entering the next jurisdiction over. Transportation is not contained within a municipality's borders. With just these two examples, it is apparent that regional approaches are critical. Smart North Florida is a non-profit organization focused on regional technology and data coordination solutions; formerly within the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization, it started by coordinating between local, state, and federal roadway networks. According to Clayton Levins, Executive Director of Smart North Florida, their team initially partnered with the local entrepreneurial community and created innovative solutions to transportation challenges. This attracted attention from healthcare systems, public schools, and other industries, which led them to realize that there are numerous topics that span boundaries and need innovation partners. Now, these regional organizations are also addressing climate change mitigation and resiliency efforts, internet connectivity, affordable housing, healthcare systems, and public safety.

2. There are scale advantages with regional solutions vs. municipal ones.

Regional organizations can help individual municipalities test out ideas and then scale them to the rest of the region. Smart North Florida has a resiliency lab in Neptune Beach, where they’re testing out climate resilience ideas such as stormwater reuse and draining. Once solutions are proven out, the team at Smart North Florida can work with the rest of the region to scale the impact. “I think the beauty of a regional organization is the breadth of lives that we get to touch,” remarked Levins.

By operating at the regional level, not only are more people impacted but there are more resources and ideas being contributed. Tyler Svitak, Executive Director of Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, shared an innovative idea to tie all the electric vehicles in the Denver Metro Area to the grid and then allow the utility to control when those vehicles are charged vs. discharged. “You could do incredible things for saving ratepayers money for optimizing renewable energy,” said Svitak “but it has to be at scale in order for it to be useful. And that requires regional infrastructure collaboration and mutual investment.”

3. A third party solution can work between public and private sectors to enhance partnership and innovation.

Beyond scale, a critical role that these regional collaboratives play is as a facilitator, creating conversations not just between cities but also with the private sector. Svitak mentioned that the role of Colorado Smart Cities Alliance is to “create a forum where jurisdictions are talking with each other and collaborating about how to collectively do something together with the private sector at the table, who are often making those solutions they’re going to use.” Private sector partnerships are normally a reactive process: vendors react to RFPs and cities react to the preexisting solutions. By proactively getting private vendors to the table, new solutions can be created to solve problems.

“There are entrenched interests on both sides of public and private. Of course, the private interest is always to make money and that is often at odds and creates distrust with the public sector. [This is why the public sector has] created really stringent procurement processes and aren’t normally collaborative when it comes to developing something that the city is eventually going to buy,” Svitak explains. “So having us in the middle as this neutral third party [allows us to] advocate on behalf of either party…we can be a barrier reducer.”

In talking with Joe Gallo, Executive Officer of the Illinois Smart City and Region Association, he emphasized that they “drive heavily on the notion that neutrality or impartiality by an association like [theirs] is critical because the “sales pitch” of a vendor is a large barrier for adoption by municipal decision makers.” Gallo also mentioned that his team is intentional about embedding vendors in their working groups, and when they don’t already have relationships with private vendors who can solve certain challenges, they go out and find new vendors. They can operate as technology scouts in a way that government can’t.

It is important to also emphasize the lack of capacity for innovation within public agencies. There are few structures that support risk within public sector teams and there isn’t as much of a culture of testing ideas. Beyond an innovation culture, Svitak explained that, unless it is someone’s full time job, it will be hard to create and find innovative solutions. This is where regional collaboratives can shine.

4. Regional organizations can be a central hub to think about interoperability.

These smart city regional alliances are trying to provide a toolkit for communities. Beyond just being a directory of recommended technology solutions, they can also provide guidance and expertise to think about how to make all these disparate systems work together. How can the data from one technology device be used to solve another problem? What underlying software infrastructure does a city need?

Gallo emphasized that his team in Illinois sees their goal as achieving interoperability not just between technologies within one community, but between various communities throughout the state. This approach to building a unified regional technology plan is the only path he sees to getting to a fully “Smart State.”

5. Small communities benefit from regional investments.

Small cities have less capacity and less funding compared to major cities, but this does not mean that smaller places should get left behind in this technology revolution. This would only exacerbate the inequities that already exist between small and large communities. By creating regional organizations, the benefits are more easily spread to less dense areas including rural ones. Furthermore, small cities can benefit from cost-sharing practices without having to shoulder the costs alone. “When you’re talking about a smart region, small or midsize communities can’t do the same stuff that larger communities can. A really smart region is a rising tide that lifts all ships,” noted Levins.

There are numerous discussions about how each level of government (local, state, federal) should participate in smart city development. However, these conversations leave out the important role of a regional third party organization. Regional approaches more effectively solve boundaryless challenges and provide benefits of scale. Third party organizations are critical as unbiased innovation partners to the public and private sectors – they can create trust between the sectors and generate more successful partnerships. Interoperability will become an ever-greater challenge as cities adopt more technology, so it is important to think about regional interoperability at the beginning of technology adoption. There are equity concerns with small communities having less capacity to keep up. For these five main reasons, the future of smart city development will happen at the regional level. 

About the Author

Kamya Jagadish

Kamya Jagadish is a writer for Data-Smart City Solutions while she pursues a Master of Public Policy and Master of Business Administration at Harvard. Before coming to graduate school, she worked as a data scientist and product manager in the tech sector and as an innovation specialist within the US Department of Transportation. At school she is focused on determining pathways to leverage private capital and partnerships for the public sector.