Five success factors for smart cities

In the wake of the pandemic, cities are reinventing themselves with big goals in mind.

By Margaret Lindquist | August 2021

Five success factors for smart cities

“Who cares if you’re cloud first,” says Rob Lloyd, CIO for the City of San José in California. “Many people talk about technology in the context of ‘new is better,’ but the need is to target the technologies that help, with outcomes that matter.”

And Lloyd would know. San José, Silicon Valley’s civic and commercial hub, benefits from a 311 system built using Oracle Service Cloud and Oracle Integration and Migration. But it’s the capabilities the tool enables that really matter to the citizens of San José: transformation of service delivery, constituent services that are more accessible and equitable, and a data-driven approach to service improvement and policy. In a community of people who speak every major language in the world, the system even has a language translation service that allows residents to communicate in their own language when connecting with an English-speaking agent on the phone, through a mobile app, or through chat functionality. And San José is doubling down on innovation with significant new investments into 311 services over the next two years.

A more constituent-friendly 311 service is just one way that San José is working toward the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 goals aimed at reducing poverty, protecting natural resources, fostering work and economic growth, advancing peace, and revitalizing global partnerships. In a recent research study conducted by ESI ThoughtLab, 74% of advanced economies and 50% of emerging economies said they were making progress towards SDGs. Worldwide, cities are making the most progress on goals related to people and prosperity—reducing poverty, increasing availability of decent work and economic growth, and improving the quality of education.

The ESI ThoughtLab researchers placed cities into three categories: sprinters, which are progressing in most of the United Nation’s goals; advancers, which are beginning to make progress on SDGs; and implementers, which are starting to include SDGs in their plans. One surprise for researchers—sprinters weren’t necessarily smart cities, which are cities that are using digital technologies and data to advance their goals. “Being smart doesn't mean you're going to be a sprinter,” says ESI ThoughtLab Founder and CEO Lou Celi. “And being a sprinter doesn't mean that you're smart, but there is a good correlation. There are cities that do both very well, and our hypothesis is that those are the cities of the future.”


“Define the initiatives that are top priority for your particular city. Then put the organization and the policies and the budget in place to address those prioritized initiatives.”

Keith Rajecki, Vice President, Oracle Public Sector, Education, and Research

The SDGs are a useful framework, and technology is a helpful enabler, but there’s a first step that city leaders need to take. “Define the initiatives that are top priority for your particular city,” says Keith Rajecki, vice president of Oracle's solutions for the global public sector, education, and research industries. “Then put the organization and the policies and the budget in place to address those prioritized initiatives.”

Celi pinpoints five success factors for cities that are making progress on the SDGs.


Identify city leaders

78% of sprinters clearly identified a role or department responsible for the priority goals, while none of the cities at the start of their journey had. Lloyd cautions city leaders to avoid falling into the trap of creating an SDG “czar.” “That one person, their name gets highlighted and then they move on and everything collapses,” says Lloyd. “Or a new mayor comes in and says that was the other guy’s or gal’s thing, and then it falls apart.” City leaders need to create structures for success so that programs keep running even when leadership changes.


Monitor progress and benchmark against others

Every city is unique, but at the same time, cities benefit from benchmarking their progress against other cities of similar size, similar problems, with similar economic levels of development. “Cities like to talk to one another and need to have a free flow of information so they can make better decisions,” says Celi. “If a city uses artificial intelligence to improve its mobility system, then other city managers want to look at that and see what the lessons are for them.”


Make better use of the city’s broader ecosystem

One characteristic of sprinter cities is that their leaders generally have a more progressive vision for improving services. One thing that makes that possible is access to an ecosystem that can support smart city initiatives, including universities, research organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “The research shows that the cities that leveraged their ecosystem did the best,” says John Tuohy, director for Oracle’s smart cities strategy. Many cities struggle with access to budget, but even there, sprinter cities are finding innovative ways of funding and resourcing some of their initiatives, such as partnerships with the private sector.


Understand citizen priorities

The ESI ThoughtLab study shows that 86% of sprinter cities are engaging with citizens through digital and traditional means, while only 56% of the implementer cities are doing so. The research indicates that cities with high levels of participation have stronger communities and more empowered citizens—making them better equipped to achieve their goals. “If we think about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, you want to have food, clean water, clean air, access to food and shelter before you start thinking about giving everybody internet access,” says Tuohy.


Invest in technology

The top five technology investments for cities overall are cloud, with 88% investing; mobile at 86%; Internet of Things (IoT) at 84%; biometrics at 74%; and AI at 66%. Sprinters have also made the most progress collecting data, integrating multiple types of data, and making data accessible, both internally and externally. “People are realizing that technology can help us deal with a lot of these surprises,” says Tuohy. “If everything's in the cloud, then we don't have to worry about some kind of natural disaster wiping out our IT department, because it's not there. It's in a safe place.”

During the pandemic, most cities were focused on putting out the fire. But what comes next? “How are cities going to reinvent themselves for the future?” says Celi. “How are they going to rebuild themselves, rebuild their transportation system, rebuild their health systems?” For Rajecki, the silver lining is that many cities are investing in IT modernization and infrastructure—and expanding the definition of infrastructure to include infrastructure around IT modernization, replacing systems that are costly to maintain and don't provide the functionality and agility needed to provide digital services to their citizens. “I think the pandemic made cities focus more on social benefits,” says Tuohy. “They’re thinking more about people.”

Dig deeper

Illustration: Wes Rowell

Margaret Lindquist

Margaret Lindquist

Margaret Lindquist is a senior director and writer at Oracle.