Smart cities: Digital transformation and municipalities
As technology evolves, more and more public sector entities are seeking to leverage it to solve some of their most vexing challenges. However, many municipalities face funding constraints that limit their ability to evaluate and adopt innovative technologies. Combined with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their revenue, municipalities are further constrained in their ability to invest and prepare for the future. That said, there are several cost-effective strategies that municipalities can adopt with relative ease. Leveraging emerging technologies effectively can provide a low-cost way for municipalities to improve citizen interactions, increase transparency and meet sustainability targets.
Community interactions and transparency
Numerous municipalities cite community interactions and transparency as major pain points. City websites tend to be complex; it’s often difficult for citizens and businesses to navigate them effectively without knowing the organizational structure of the municipality. This in turn leads to large call volumes and undue pressure on the city’s call centre.
Low-code chatbots are a good place to start for cities looking to leverage technology to facilitate smoother interactions with their constituents and reduce costs. Chatbots are simple to deploy and can be live in a matter of weeks. They’re very effective at answering FAQs, assisting with navigation and addressing common questions. They make it much easier for the community to interact with the city, while in turn easing the pressure on call centre staff.
Another area of concern for municipalities is the environment. Increasing population density coupled with a lack of investment in transportation infrastructure are forcing people to spend a larger portion of their time in transit and causing an increasing number of emissions.
Multiple sources of datasets, including those derived from geographic information systems and open data, can be leveraged to promote sustainability and reduce emissions. Such projects are sophisticated in nature and utilize mature and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things and predictive analytics to help cities design more sustainable infrastructure. The benefits of such technologies include smarter and dynamic traffic flow management to optimize and reduce idle traffic, and the ability to predict air pollution levels and control emissions.
Many cities also struggle with effective waste management. Typically, garbage and recycling are organized and directed to landfills, recycling centres or organic waste collection sites. The onus is on citizens to sort materials; however, we often end up with recyclable materials in the landfill and vice versa. Smart waste management essentially leverages IoT—devices and sensors—to properly and automatically route materials.
For municipalities looking to leverage technology in a cost-effective manner, the best place to start is by developing a robust digital strategy. Once you have the strategy mapped into short-, medium- and long-term phases with cost estimates and benefits clearly outlined, IT can tap into capital funding. While most funding will come from the city budget, there are also several federal and provincial funding programs available. These include modernization funds and smart city competitions to name a few. However, focus on developing a well-constructed digital strategy before pursuing funding.
Another key consideration for municipalities looking to leverage technology is talent. In order to execute on smart city initiatives, many municipalities will need to make changes in their hiring procedures as well as perform a thorough assessment of their current workforce and talent base. Due to the ever-changing nature of technology, there are new jobs and new skills on the market now that did not exist even five years ago, and that will only continue. Cities will need to assess what new skills are required for their workforce to succeed in this digital world.
Digital transformation is a long game. In the ideal smart city, a net cost reduction is achieved in all of these areas. Effective traffic management, for example, leads to less wear and tear on infrastructure such as roads and bridges, as well as effective fleet management and diversion. Smart waste management can shrink the footprint of landfills as well as reduce the environmental impact. There’s also a less quantifiable but equally important benefit in terms of quality of life for the community.
Around the world and locally, many cities are in the process of implementing their smart city strategies. In Canada, the City of Vancouver, the City of Calgary and the City of Toronto have all taken steps forward. Internationally, both London and Singapore are adopting similar initiatives. These projects are large in scope and come with unique concerns involving privacy, data collection and security. Leveraging emerging technologies can provide an effective way for municipalities to modernize, improve citizen interactions and meet sustainability targets.