Are smart cities the key to resilience?

This blog is the final of a four-part series that explores how  a growing focus on resilience will impact different areas of place branding, from reputation management to leadership and more.


PART  1 | PART  2 | PART  3 | PART 4

The word ‘rebuild’ has been the focal point of a lot of discussions around recovery. How can we rebuild our place economies back to pre-pandemic levels? How can we rebuild the footfall to our city centres? And how can we do this so that our places are more resilient against future shocks?

The smartest response isn’t to just recreate the same processes as we were used to pre-pandemic, but to understand how we can refine and improve our everyday ‘normal’. The pandemic has exposed our weaknesses and now we need to ensure that we address these in order to be more resilient against future shocks.

Smart operating models for more sustainable cities

Finding smarter ways of working is at the core of building resilience into our cities and our countries.  But what does “smart” mean in practice?  Technology is clearly part of the answer - but it is not necessarily the only answer.  In this article we’ll explore what place brand and marketing teams can learn about the use of tech, data, and smarter ways of working from Smart City initiatives.

Published in 2018, the ISO standard for smart city operation (ISO 37106) evolved from a five year process of research and engagement with city leaders, and draws on an earlier British standard in use in over 100 countries.  ISO 37106 provides a practical framework for delivering city-wide change at scale: shifting from being a siloed city to one that drives innovation and collaboration across its vertical silos. The focus is on four key areas: focussing on end outcomes; cross-silo governance; citizen-centric service transformation; and data-management.

Four key features of the ISO 37106 operating model

Source:  BSI Group’s summary guide of ISO 37106

There are a  variety of ways that this smarter approach to place governance can be achieved,  not a one-size-fits-all model. But there is one core tenet that underlies the  ISO approach to smart operating models – the ability to apply collaborative governance  to cross-vertical challenges, and citizen needs. We know from our 2021 place branding survey that just under half of place branders feel the collaboration between their tourism and economic development bodies could be more effective; this model could be at the core of effectively realising these collaborative ambitions.

After all, as the standard states: “The traditional operating model for a city has been based  around functionally-oriented service providers that operate as unconnected,  vertical silos which are often not built around user needs. Smart city leaders  need to…. develop an integrated city operating model, which is focused around  citizen and business needs, not just the city’s organisational structure."

Collaborative governance in practice

Let’s put it into context.

A tourist visiting a city has hundreds if not thousands of touch points throughout their customer journey. From visa acquisition, to transport to and within the country, to the hospitality and leisure industry. In some cases, it could even involve medical services or the police. The delivery of these functions rests in hundreds of different departments – and it absolutely should. The expertise held by different teams is what makes them great at their jobs.

However, the ISO standard suggests imposing a virtual ‘customer responsibility’ framework over the top of this existing framework of disconnected verticals. By identifying the areas which are relevant to ‘a tourist’ you can create more channels for collaboration and cross-governance within tourism without having to rebuild the organisation from the ground-up. And by assigning the ultimate accountability to a single key stakeholder, you ensure that there is a team of people with the responsibility for making sure that all the individual parts stay on track. Done right, it can be a powerful driver of change.

ISO has also developed a maturity framework – ISO 37107 – to help cities measure their performance against the ISO 37106 framework.  Piloted by cities including London and Glasgow in the UK, Dubai, Moscow, Sydney and Tianjin, this provides a self-assessment framework that can help you see how smart your city is.   Try it - and let us know here at City Nation Place what you think!

What learnings are there for place brand and marketing  organisations?

While the focus of ISO 37106 is very much on city governance, there’s a lot that can be applied within a destination marketing or economic development organisation – particularly around collaboration and more effective data/resource management. By establishing smarter processes in your organisation, you can work more efficiently, more effectively, and free up the time of your team to explore new endeavours.

And what’s more, you can establish communication channels between teams or with other key stakeholders and partners that will allow you to be more responsive and agile in the face of a sudden change or an unexpected crisis. If everyone has a clearer understanding of what their roles and responsibilities are, then you’ll have less chance of people duplicating work during a scramble to respond to a crisis.

“This is why governments opt for empowering citizenship by opening data and highlight the importance of the individual commitment,” explained David Groisman, Director General of Management Exchange and Chief Resilience Officer  at Buenos Aires. “When the information is freely available, the creativity of an entire community can help to co-create innovative solutions.”

Smarter tech and the future of cities and nations

Of course, we have to acknowledge the impact that tech has on the management and governance of a smart city or organisation. A few years back, the  CTO of Industry Solutions for Huawei shared that “All the systems of government use are silos. They are not connected together. For a smart city to work, you need an integrated, independent system. It has to be an open IT infrastructure and there must be great connections – you can’t have a smart city without connections.”

While technology shouldn’t be the core driver of a smart initiative, it can be a great enabler of the intra-connectivity and data management that can drive smarter decision making. But how are places using smart city technology effectively to address our most pressing challenges?

  • COVID-management in China: The Chinese track and trace app encouraged people to sign in whenever they arrived in a location so that the local CDC were aware of your movement. “There’s an application infrastructure that stretches across cities and across the nation, but the actual delivery is very local. That’s important,” shared Jonathan  Woetzel, Managing Director at McKinsey Global Institute. “[Cities] have to take charge of their responsibility to help their residents and their visitors feel safe.”
  • Crisis simulations in Newcastle, UK: Newcastle has created a  digital twin of the city that allows them to accurately simulate different crises and understand where the greatest stress points are going to be. As well as helping the city to address problematic areas before a crisis hits, in the event of a flood or other major catastrophe, it can be used to help the city direct emergency services to the areas that are going to face the greatest challenges.
  • The Sharing Cities project: London, Lisbon, Milan, Bordeaux, Burgas and Warsaw have been working collaboratively to understand how investment in smart technologies can address our most pressing urban challenges and prove that these solutions can be scaled and replicated across other European cities.
  • Building a digital society in Estonia: Estonia have taken the one-stop shop to the next level by building an efficient, secure, and transparent ecosystem where 99% of governmental services are online. As well as allowing a far easier end-user experience, it’s supported Estonia through the creation of several digital solutions that have helped the nation to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The challenges of smart city technology

There are challenges inherent in focussing on tech as the solution to your problems however, which is why smarter ways of working and wide-spread engagement have to be part of that solution as well.

For one, integrating technology into your organisation and your place is a costly and time-consuming process. Cisco have recently announced that they’re shuttering many of their existing smart city programmes, for example – simply because the challenges they were addressing aren’t as pressing anymore. After all, you don’t need to focus on smart traffic management if your workforce isn’t commuting due to the surge in working from home.

It will also be key to close the digital divide. For more digitally enabled countries, that will involve ensuring that you don’t leave certain communities behind – building 5G infrastructure will allow much more rapid advancements in smart city management, but if much of your population still don’t have a reliable internet connection, then it may not be most pressing solution. And for countries that are further behind in implementing digital solutions, closing the digital divide will be essential in delivering competitive value for investors and residents alike.

In Singapore, for example, a new national movement embraces digital technologies as a lifelong pursuit that will enrich lives. The Digital for Life Fund that the government has launched has the dual focus of building digital resilience and promoting digital literacy and wellness which will encourage healthier and more sustainable habits within their population.

Lastly, as long as there have been smart city solutions available, there have been concerns of over-surveillance, of new and oppressive ways for the state to police their communities. Google’s proposed Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a particularly high-profile example of how a lack of citizen engagement led to fierce opposition from residents and concerns around privacy and data management. Transparency and a comprehensive citizen engagement strategy could be the key towards assuaging many of these concerns.

These challenges need addressing if we are to build effective and resilient smart cities and organisations, but they aren’t the be all and end all. And if you can create a cross-silo collaborative approach, it will create a far more resilient foundation for all your future smart initiatives.

Related reading

What does 5G mean for place marketing, placemaking, and place branding?

How do you create a resilient place reputation

Putting resilience at the heart of post-pandemic placemaking

Four findings from the 2021 place branding survey

'Hear, here': the sound of place branding

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.