I am intrigued by the potential that connectivity and sensors can offer municipal governments. There are lots of opportunities to make cities more efficient, and there is also a tremendous amount of data that could really upset the status quo (The deep dive on Palantir’s work in New York City is a good example of this.)
Cities also represent a messy environment to sell systems. The buyers are very cost-conscious and may not be as sophisticated about data rights and ownership as other customers, and there are usually many competing organizations involved in a system installed at scale.
But as often as I speak with people about smart cities, I’ve never had someone distill the fundamental challenge facing companies trying to sell connected gear to governments as well as Susanne Seitinger of Philips Lighting.
I spoke with her this week about Philips and the City of Los Angeles adding noise sensors to about 30 streetlights as part of a pilot project. She told me, “One of the things about cities and municipal governments is that everything they do is grounded in delivering services.
“So when a mayor or anyone in the city organization can tie technology to delivering a service for their constituents and the technology is delivered fluidly they are excited. But anything you have to go beyond the core of delivering that service to citizens, for example having to build a complex mesh network to deliver a service, it doesn’t move as fluidly and it’s a harder sell.”
That’s stunningly obvious, but so many companies in tech forget that. And as every company tries to become a “tech company” this may be a good time to ask if that’s really what they should do. I believe that the most successful companies selling technology to cities (or to anyone really) will need to make their tech disappear into their service.
Nominet, a domain registry in the UK, recently conducted a survey of smart city projects around the globe and discovered that the top projects listed were focused on the creation of data platforms, environmental monitoring, citizen engagement and traffic management. With the exception of creating a data platform, all of these efforts tie directly back to serving citizens.
Once sold on a connected city effort, municipalities have to consider things like maintenance and ensuring that people can be trained to incorporate the newest whiz-bang technology into their day-to-day workflow. For example, in a conversation this summer with Brenna Berman, the CIO of Chicago, she expressed skepticism about internet connected kiosks such as those deployed by Kansas.
Her worry was practical. Street furniture becomes a target for vandals and also becomes a potential embarrassment should it get hacked, break down or get tagged. Additionally, with most people carrying smart phones, internet connected screens in public seem superfluous.
Both womens’ thoughts showcase the fundamental truth for connected cities. Those making decisions about them are deeply practical. Their constituents even more so. They also have a funding challenge that cannot be overstated. The Nominet research discovered that just under 50% of the projects studied were funded by public money, from local authorities, grants or academia.
Seitinger says that in some lighting deployments, cities bill individual departments for access to data derived from city-owned sensors, but stresses that for most municipalities funding and revenue models around smart cities are still up in the air.
Given the promise of better data and new services offered by smarter municipalities, I’m hopeful that companies can deliver products that focus on the service instead not the tech, and that they can get creative with their sales strategy.
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