A ‘smart city’ might well be a medium-sized city that does not necessarily make use of leading-edge technologies but still manages to efficiently meet all the challenges it faces.

#SxSW: Local government the key driver of the smart city concept?

The vast majority of the medium-sized cities in the United States – according to Bloomberg Philanthropies there are 286 of them – still have a long way to go to acquire a culture of gathering and analysing data. “Surprising as it may seem, local authorities in the US are only just beginning to understand how useful data is and to become aware that the public sector really needs to innovate. So we still have work to do to familiarise the public sector with the notion of risk-taking,” James Anderson, Head of Government Innovation Programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, who is inter alia in charge of the What Works Cities initiative*, told the audience at the South by South West (SxSW) event taking place this week in Austin, Texas.

A recent report from Bloomberg Philanthropies reveals that some 70% of medium-sized US cities**are certainly committed to using data to support their decisions, but that only 28% of them actually make changes to local authority programmes after analysing the data. So we can conclude that there is quite a gap between all the good intentions – or at least the public stances adopted – and the actual use of data to support decision-making in these cities. In the same vein, 64% of the medium-sized cities surveyed have a performance-measuring programme to track progress against the objectives set – for budgets, for instance.  However, once again, only 30% of them have tools and procedures in place for analysing the progress made.

L'utilisation du big data par les villes américaines de taille moyenne

Use of Big Data by medium-sized US cities, taken from The City Hall Data Gap report by Bloomberg Philanthropies

However it would be wrong to give up all hope! The Bloomberg report highlights the efforts being made by a number of mid-sized US cities. “Cities such as Kansas City, Missouri and Tacoma, Washington prove that mid-sized municipalities in the US can be real models when it comes to using data. Moreover, we firmly believe that local governments are the main anchor points for the smart city, primarily because they’re very close to the citizens,” underlined James Anderson.

Technologically modest initiatives can be highly effective

Tacoma, 30 kilometres south of Seattle in Washington State, is one of the cities that are looking to optimise their resources by drawing on data. Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland told the SxSW audience: “A few years ago, we went through the recession, which meant we had to reduce our budget by 50%. Which budget items should we get rid of? At City Hall we had some ideas but what did city residents think? So we asked them. In a straightforward survey that they could access on our website we asked our citizens to think about which areas they saw as priorities for public spending. In fact the results confirmed that we had had the right instincts all along and of course an online poll is perhaps not a major innovation in itself. But this completely changed our way of presenting local authority proposals to our residents and it also changed the way they were received. That’s because we collected the data and analysed it. We made the effort and our citizens understood that.”

Marilyn Strickland also touched on the sensitive issue of homeless people, a problem that is common to many US cities today. “Data helps us to work with other towns in the area. We noticed that Tacoma’s social services were suffering from overload. When we aggregated the data from the social services in neighbouring towns we realised that we were providing assistance to almost all the homeless people in the county, which was really unfair given that the nearby towns all had emergency centres which were practically empty. Looking at precise figures using a simple dashboard enabled the Tacoma local authority to put out a call for shared responsibility, to amplify the message and make it easy to grasp,” she revealed.

Groupe de discussion intitulé « Better Living through Data and Evidence » avec Sly James, maire de Kansas City, Marylin Strickland, maire de Tacoma et James Anderson, en charge du projet What Works Cities

Discussion group addressing the theme of Better Living through Data and Evidence with Sly James, mayor of Kansas City, Missouri; Marilyn Strickland, mayor of Tacoma; and James Anderson, who heads up the What Works Cities project.

A culture change is on the way

In the United States, which is a highly entrepreneurial country, one might criticise the public sector for not doing as well as the private sector in terms of innovation. In answer to President Obama's introductory keynote speech on Day1, Evan Smith, Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Tribune, pointed out that the public sector tends to have a reputation for being heavy, slow and inflexible while the private sector, particularly startups, is associated with agility and efficiency. The US President did not seek to deny these shortcomings but he did express confidence that the government would attain the goal of going digital.

Meanwhile there seems to be real awareness of the needs at local authority level. Kansas City mayor Sly James, who in the course of his collaboration with the ‘What Works Cities’ programme has been held up as a figurehead when it comes to making use of data, was very modest about his own achievements, insisting: “Our greatest success to date has been our ability to try (…) I’m not from the tech world and I have a lot to learn. I need to surround myself with a team of people who are attuned to the importance of data, people who can really understand it, which is still a challenge for us today.” This reminds us of Barack Obama’s call to the country’s engineers and data scientists to work alongside him and help take the public sector forward into the digital age.

Groupe de discussion avec Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, maire de Baltimore

Discussion group addressing the theme of a Tale of Two Cities: challenging urban disparity with Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Elizabeth Kneebone from The Brookings Institution

There seems little doubt that an overall culture change is gradually starting to take place within US local government. “Through the ‘What Works Cities’ initiative we’re trying to inculcate such practices as AB testing and continuous experimentation in the public sector, at local government level,” explained James Anderson. Marylin Strickland stressed that “It also follows from this that we have to accept there’ll be some setbacks. Up to now, there has been no room for the notion of failure in the public sector.”

Few people would dispute the fact that data analysis has the potential to foster greater transparency, bring citizens closer to the local authorities and get them involved in the decision-making process. It is however interesting to compare this vision of the smart city with our own ideas. If our imagination sometimes leads us to envisage the smart city as a gigantic futuristic, ultra-connected metropolis, speakers at the various SxSW 2016 sessions did their best to bring us back to basic realities. A smart city does not necessarily have to use highly sophisticated technology and its name may not be a byword for high tech all over the world, but it may nevertheless be able to provide real answers to the challenges of urban living and restore local people to their central role in decision-making.

* ‘What Works Cities’: launched in 2015, the goal of this country-wide programme is to help over 100 mid-sized cities to make good use of data.

** Based on a survey among 39 US cities of between 10,000 and 1 million inhabitants which responded to the ‘What Works Cities’ call.

By Pauline Canteneur