From smart city to hyperconnected city – what’s next in digital innovation?

Research reveals a seven-step roadmap to becoming hyperconnected.

A rendering of a connected intersection.
A rendering of a connected intersection.

The idea of smart cities – those that effectively harness digital technology to improve urban life – is gaining some serious traction around the world. Smart mobility systems, smart power, smart water—you name it—cities are trying to make sense of what applications they should be focusing on, and how to leverage them to address their most pressing challenges.

But what technologies are they actually implementing? What challenges are they trying to solve? What are the outcomes they are hoping for?

Stantec recently co-sponsored a smart cities study (developed by ESI ThoughtLab) which surveyed more than 100 urban centers from around the globe on their approach to digital innovation, and the results showed that the smart cities evolution is well under way. More than 9 out of 10 cities say they are using data generated by the Internet of Things (IoT) – long considered foundational in smart cities work – to provide value to their stakeholders. From monitoring air pollution through mobile apps to mobility as a service (MaaS), cities are exploring new technologies that harness the power of data to make life better for their citizens. On average, cities surveyed will increase their smart city spending by 14 percent over the coming year.

The key to maximizing the value created by those investments is to take a holistic approach to city planning. Different technological investments can work together to create a cumulative benefit to the community. Cities that create the conditions for thoughtful, strategic investments are those that will benefit the most from digital innovation.

Although those just starting out on the smart cities path reported a 1.8 percent return on investment (ROI) for their projects, those leading the pack claimed a five percent return. This indicates a multiplier effect when it comes to smart city investments – the more connected a city becomes, the greater the benefits of those investments.

The ROI here is a leading indicator of the transition from a smart city – one that implements technology to improve the urban experience – to a hyperconnected city – one that interconnects key areas of its ecosystem. This interconnectedness has the potential to touch all aspects of city life, from roads to cars, buildings to energy grids, citizens to government and cities to cities.

After all, the challenges and opportunities communities are currently facing do not stop at city limits.

Becoming hyperconnected through transportation

The real power of smart technologies lies in how well they work together. A vehicle detector at a signalized intersection can sense cars and help optimize movements at the intersection. Advanced detector technologies can even improve safety at the intersection by adjusting timings when pedestrians need additional time to cross a road, or when a heavy truck cannot stop in time for a red light.

But, if that same intersection is linked to other nearby intersections, that data can be used to optimize traffic along a corridor. Connecting all the traffic signals in a city to a traffic management center, along with real-time crowdsourced data and mid-block sensors, allows the data to be used in an advanced traffic responsive system. The multiple sources of data can be used to analyze, understand, predict and respond to real-time traffic patterns. This data can also inform infrastructure investment planning, emergency response and efforts to plan safer roads. Connecting technologies and leveraging the power of data can make life better and save money by making investments more efficient.

And that is precisely what smart cities leaders are doing. Nearly all smart cities leaders – the 25 cities in the study considered ahead of their peers – have adopted real-time traffic management technologies. This is also the smart technology that is reported as providing the highest ROI. As a whole, smart traffic management initiatives such as adaptive traffic signals, parking apps and curbside management, provided reduced emergency response times (31 percent), decreased vehicle accidents (25 percent) and reduced congestion (26 percent). 

Cities that invested in smart public transportation initiatives reported increased passenger satisfaction (38 percent), increased on-time arrivals (33 percent) and increased transit ridership (29 percent) as main benefits.

While individual city experiences vary, all transportation-related smart investments were said to have a positive ROI and provide tangible improvements to the community. For those cities farther along than others, the results were greater and more tangible.

A seven-step roadmap to building a hyperconnected city 

As the responses were reviewed from participating cities, it became clear that smart city leaders are engaging in specific best practices that are contributing to their success. While every city’s path to connectivity will be different, emerging trends can help inform a path forward, or a roadmap to becoming hyperconnected.

1.     Make the business case

Establishing a business case for investment with clear metrics for ROI is the first step in effectively investing in smart technology. Only half of cities surveyed create a business case for all smart projects, though 68 percent of leaders do so. Continuously monitoring performance based on established benchmarks means you can make the case for future investment or provide logic for changing course. Having meaningful information on the ROI of investments is also an important tool in winning public support.

2.      Calculate the full benefits

The benefits of good city planning reach beyond pure financial ROI. Higher productivity, improved health and well-being, improved logistics and increased economic growth and tourism make cities better places. All cities in the leader category quantify societal benefits, and two-thirds quantify environmental benefits. By including these factors in ROI calculations, cities can better assess the true impact of their investments.

3.      Organize your resources

Hyperconnected cities tend to largely centralize their staff, and to utilize both internal and external expertise to run their smart cities programs. This seems to provide a better operational organization than using internal or external staff exclusively. More advanced cities also place higher value on their smart programs, with staff reporting directly to the mayor’s office.

4.      Capitalize on advanced technologies

Having a strategy to harness the power of new technologies helps with launching new initiatives, as well as providing a better understanding of cybersecurity. The study found that 68 percent of leader cities have an innovation hub to manage and promote the city’s relationship with new technologies.

5.      Use the ecosystem effectively

Partnering with technology partners is the most popular way for leader cities to acquire new technology. Partnerships can align strategic goals, generate continuous program improvements and enable cities to do more with less resources. Working with technology providers, operators and holistic consultants can be the winning combination that delivers projects that work.

This also allows cities to be more independent than outsourcing projects completely and gives them the opportunity to operate systems internally, making them more self-reliant.

6.      Generate more value from data

Generating more value from data is a core characteristic of a hyperconnected city. Leader cities tend to work with businesses and third parties to use data that can inform city planning, operate under written data policies to guide proper use and implement flexible policies that can change with new technology. Involving the public is key as well, with leader cities making around 620 data sets available to the public, while the average city shares 400.

7.      Ensure all citizens are engaged and connected

Hyperconnected cities are far more engaged with the public – 96 percent reach out to stakeholders to demonstrate the value of projects. They also actively engage with stakeholders to ensure the success of projects and ensure that disadvantaged demographics are involved in the process. Some hyperconnected city leaders are starting to appoint chief citizen experience officers (CCXOs) – responsible for the citizens’ experience with city websites, call centers and mobile apps. 

The first step to becoming hyperconnected – start with citizens

Smart cities have been around for a while, but the future of urban life is hyperconnected. It’s always been true that technology moves faster than public opinion, so it’s not surprising that cities identify gaining public support as the top challenge to pursuing smart projects (52 percent).

As an urban planner, I’m trained to listen to people and incorporate their feedback in community planning and design. The fact is, the best ideas often come from the people who live in the community – they know the streets and they deal with local challenges every day. It’s up to cities and planners to work with communities, to demonstrate the value of smart technologies and to show citizens how their lives will improve as the city becomes more connected. 

Barcelona stood up and did the hard work of building trust early, launching Decidim.Barcelona – a digital democratic platform used by 400,000 citizens to discuss urban solutions and policies. The city’s chief technology officer has called for “a new social contract for the digital age,” which respects individual “digital sovereignty.” Stockholm has also been recognized for its scaled approach to building a trusting relationship with citizens by opening lines of communication and prioritizing public education. The trust from an open dialogue not only makes adoption smoother, but it makes sure citizen input is being heard and considered in projects that affect the lives of people.

Smart technology isn’t going to change what cities are trying to do, which is to create vibrant economic and culturally rich communities that are desirable places to live, work and play. Technology is there to help us do a better job of planning communities that work efficiently, that dedicate resources appropriately and that provide opportunities for wider segments of the population than ever before. Cities that embrace the conversation around technology, take the hard steps to build public trust and lay out a roadmap to becoming hyperconnected will outcompete their peers when it comes to livability and economic investment.

In the future, we will still be planning for people. And the smartest cities will put people first.


Nancy MacDonald is director of Stantec’s Urban Places and the firm’s Smart Cities Lead.

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