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Building a smart city – 5 things to consider

What makes your village, town or city an enjoyable place to live? Do you value being able to walk in pedestrianised areas? Safe cycle routes? Clean air? A vibrant community events calendar? There are numerous factors that contribute to how we measure our quality of life.

However one parameter that almost everyone agrees on, is access to quality public services. Satisfaction with public services can be a strong indicator for permanent or temporary residency in an area, so it follows that citizens should be involved in designing public services of the future. That is, if governments and developers want to get things right…

As the Internet continues to permeate almost all aspects of our lives and the everyday objects we use (e.g. the proliferation of “The Internet of Things” or “The Internet of Everything”), technological innovations are also reshaping the architecture of the spaces in which we live. Technology is upgrading our streets, air quality, and communications infrastructure. Smart cities are becoming near-future aims of many councils all over the world. But where should they start? How do you build a “smart city”? It can’t just be about using new technologies?

Here I highlight 5 considerations that may not always be top-of-mind when planning and building elements of a smart city:


You might think statements like “we’re putting citizens first” and “we’re building citizen-centric services” are just rhetorical claims – often from politicians. These claims are bounded around so they start to lose their meaning. How are governments ensuring they put the citizen front and centre of civic developments?

Long-standing misunderstanding and mistrust of technology developers remain – so too of those who are the mouthpiece for communicating the implications and purposes of technological developments in the civic space. Citizens are wary of these advancements and how they may encroach on civil liberties, and I wonder how many of us feel we are given an opportunity to truly understand them.

We are already blessed with a great array of technological gadgets which do not connect to one another. There are numerous start-ups and tech companies in biotechnology, transport, health, telecommunications, and energy. Their inventions are often being used at random and in ways that do not actively involve citizens or gather feedback. Sometimes technologies are foisted upon us rather than being developed and refined with us.

Developers should never underestimate the importance of working with people (the eventual users or beneficiaries of these technologies) from right across the population spectrum – with representation from different age groups, social groups, genders, abilities and other demographics. Innovations must be implemented with care and citizen involvement.

Mechanisms for change: Effective and thorough government/developer-to-citizen communication is crucial. Send surveys to gather feedback, communicate proactively with citizens via email, text message, phone, municipal meeting or at a public consultation event, run hackathons, host focus groups and user experience trials, support start-ups, and engage the whole city in a debate on what the future should “look like”.


Use your twin-town relationships, Healthy Cities networks, learn new languages, encourage your government peers and employees to do their research and be inspired by what others are achieving around the world. If you stay in your local bubble and don’t learn from others, you’ll limit your area’s potential and get left behind.

Mechanisms for change: Be open to ideas and prepare to be influenced by other cultures and peoples. GovDelivery can help you collaborate with others. Want to share your work with peers across the country and worldwide? Want to keep up-to-date with what your peers are doing elsewhere? Being part of the GovDelivery Network connects you to 1,800 government organisations worldwide, and 120 million citizens.


It is important to have a strategy for incorporating smart elements into a city, and for communicating on the plans, aims and progress of your work. First, make sure your stakeholders are well-informed about the current situation, existing needs, and short-term as well as long-term goals.

What can be made “smart”? Bin collections? Street lamps? Energy supply and demand? Internet access? Waste management? Public realm maintenance? There is scope for many aspects of city management to be automated and connected.

However, one smart bin does not mean you have smart bin collection system. One street lamp with Wi-Fi, automated on and off modes, and air pollution detectors does not make your whole city smart. You need to have a plan for how these things can fit together in the existing city framework. Or what changes are needed to make these developments a success?

It is perfectly advisable to run pilots, prototype, and experiment. But there comes a point where you need strategic direction. You’ll need to prioritise and consider what it is you’re trying to achieve. What will benefit the most people in the most impactful and beneficial way? Make a decision and concentrate on SMART objectives – aims which are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

Mechanisms for change: You’ll need to have a robust strategy for communicating important changes and gathering feedback from stakeholders. Check out our 20 tips to boost citizen engagement.


Never underestimate the importance of internal and interdepartmental communication. People can be averse to change. It’s unnerving and instinctive. But it can also be exciting and brings people together in new ways. If you invest in an effective communications strategy, and make a commitment to listening to co-workers and stakeholder right from the start through to the end of a project, you stand a better chance of successful adoption and staff and stakeholders being advocates of the change.

Mechanisms for change: Employee engagement can be as challenging as engaging the public. You must give staff a voice and provide easy ways for them to get involved. Show how their feedback influences the direction of a project. Here are 5 ways to improve your internal communications.


Finally, to build smart cities, vast amounts of data from a range of sources will need to be managed and presented in ways that help inform, educate and shed light on where resources should be focused, or interventions should be made.

You’ll need to manage data creation, collection, transmission and exchange, alongside ensuring the data is open and useful to others.

Having a central collection point for all your datasets of information from various sources is a great asset that will help you conduct better analysis and make informed decisions about what to do next. Small and large companies, government departments, individuals, universities, journalists, scientists, developers, researchers and the wider public sector need easy access to data. Different groups will be able to use it to identify a city’s strengths and weaknesses and then design and build great things.

Mechanisms for change: Easy access to data that is well organised and presented in a way everyone can understand is vital. At GovDelivery we believe open source is the best principle for data management and publishing. You can use our DKAN data tool and visualisation services to manage all your data needs. Take a look at our open data checklist to learn how an open data portal can support economic opportunity and help citizens make better decisions.

Do you have comments on this blog or want to share some thoughts on smart cities in general? Please share them with me on Twitter @steevecz