For smaller communities, the smart city transformation isn’t just about technology

Guest Blog by Eugene W Grant, Mayor of Seat Pleasant, Maryland

Mayor Eugene W Grant, Seat Pleasant, Maryland

Seat Pleasant is a bedroom community in Prince George’s County, Md., with a population of approximately 4,721 residents. The city, which shares a border with Washington D.C., is a transportation hub that sees over 200,000 cars per day, provides easy access to the METRO transit system, and is close to three airports.

It has been my honor to serve as mayor of Seat Pleasant for the past 15 years, and over the last few years, I’ve spearheaded the efforts to transform Seat Pleasant, into the world’s first authentic small smart city. During this transformation, the city deployed smart city technologies that have improved the efficiency of government operations and services. Our guiding principal that the citizen is the most important stakeholder, and the strategic partnerships that the city forged with private, educational and public institutions, have been the catalyst behind the city’s successful and historic transformation.

I’m often asked questions about this transformation. Why did you decide to become a smart city, and how did such a small community do it?

To understand why we wanted to become a smart city, you have to understand that as a small community, our resources are very limited. Our primary revenue source is property tax, which is the case in the majority of small cities.

Obviously, the “business” of government is becoming more and more expensive every day, and we can’t simply generate additional revenue by continuously raising taxes. So, we had to find innovative ways to do more with less. Hence, we recognized that a smart city transformation is the key to overcoming these challenges.

Many people in municipal governments state that limited resources is the exact reason why they won’t initiate a smart city transformation. For example, Seat Pleasant recently commissioned a study that reached out to over 2,000 small U.S. cities and asked them about their priorities, challenges, and their current IT and digital strategies. One of the questions aimed to identify the barriers to smart city transformation, and the top two reasons were financial constraints and “not knowing where to start.”

Waste is how we address the first point of financial constraints. The majority of all organizations, including public and private institutions, deal with waste and inefficiencies in their processes. Waste is often one of the reasons financial constraints exist. By eliminating waste, organizations can rededicate resources to other priorities and initiatives. Smart city transformation, with its potential to do just that, should be looked at as an investment that will yield an ROI rather than an expenditure.

Secondly, most municipalities think that smart city transformations cost millions, but the reality is that there are many affordable solutions that cities can implement, which takes us to the how.

How did little Seat Pleasant become the world’s first small smart city? We took a process-oriented approach to developing a strategic, citizen centric smart city road map. This process forced us to first identify our priorities, including what our citizens expect of government. Once we know the desired outcome, we can begin to craft strategies that reinforce our strengths, mitigate our weaknesses, and strategies that promote opportunities for innovation.

This is important, because a common mistake cities make is that they focus too much on just the technology or gadget when they should focus on how to address a challenge instead. They must understand that technology is not the end all be all, rather, it is simply a tool used to optimize the way government operates.

The Process for Smart Transformation

For cities that want to digitally transform into citizen-centric smart cities, we recommend our four step process:

Define your Identity: Existing Assets are the Cornerstone for Progress

The first step is simple and doesn’t require any type of technological solution. Cities should identify their existing assets, what they’re known for, the uniqueness of the city and the dynamics of the city.

Once a city’s assets are identified, city leaders need to devise ways to leverage those assets. In Seat Pleasant, our small size and strategic location are our assets. Our size allows us to be the ideal “test-bed of innovation.” Companies and startups can test innovative technologies at low cost and still have a large impact area (e.g. the entire city of Seat Pleasant vs. one ward in a large city), and they’re able to demonstrate their technologies in a high visibility area due to our location alongside the nation’s capital. In addition, our small size allows us to be nimble and flexible as an organization.

Re-engineering Processes

During the second step, cities need to envision how they would like their government to function. This includes how various departments, business processes and services interact with one another, and in particular, how data from each of these sources comes together. It’s about envisioning a future state where every aspect of city government is connected and coordinated.

Once this future state is imagined, cities need to analyze their existing business processes and services for redundancies, bottlenecks, inefficiencies and other sources of waste, and then begin to automate and modernize these processes so that meaningful data is collected and so that data flows freely across the organization. For example, in Seat Pleasant, we started by optimizing our procurement process and we also introduced data collection steps into all our processes so that we could begin to measure performance.

Modernize and Integrate

In Step three, cities should modernize their technology, by shifting their focus to utilizing cloud and mobile solutions. By utilizing cloud computing, cities can reduce costs, enhance security and reduce the burden on city staff to manage IT infrastructure. In addition, cities should look to integrate their existing systems with new ones, rather than take a “rip and replace” approach that gets rid of all legacy investments. In Seat Pleasant, our incumbent work order system was integrated with our new smart city platform.

Infuse with Innovative Technologies

Finally, the last step is to begin to infuse government operations with innovative technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, artificial intelligence and command and control systems. Even in this step, the focus should be to leverage technologies that improve collaboration and coordination across departments, agencies, and among stakeholders.

The Outcome: A Shared Services Hub

Following these steps leads to the implementation of a shared services hub where data and processes from across the entire organization are integrated together. This promotes data-driven decision making, cross agency collaboration and coordination, and optimized operations leading to reduced costs and improved efficiencies.

Yes, Being Smart is for Everyone

Smart city transformation isn’t just for large cities, and it doesn’t have to cost millions. By starting small and with the end in mind, cities of all sizes can begin a comprehensive smart city transformation. Cities simply need to take a long hard look in the mirror in order to understand what their unique value is, leverage it, and then develop a clear vision of what the desired future state looks like. Sure, it’s not easy, but it is definitely attainable, and in the long term, will be worth every penny.