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Municipal IT Departments: In the Trenches of Smart City Deployments

Noah Goldstein
Jul 31, 2018

Connected City 2

Municipal IT departments have long been overlooked as key players in the smart city deployment process. This is changing as smart cities move beyond the pilot stage and into the era of full-scale commercial deployments. This shift, along with the maturing of smart city platforms, has left many metropolitan IT departments in a tough bind. They are suddenly getting invited to smart city meetings and asked to contribute to projects often with little additional funding or preparation.

Invited Late to the Conversation

With smart city projects on the rise, IT departments are not always brought in at the start of the conversation. Smart city initiatives originate from several places in a city such as leadership (e.g., a mayor or city council) or from a specific department (like the traffic department wanting to install intelligent traffic signals). The idea of deploying a platform often follows after the concept of a smart city has matured within a city—as highlighted by Navigant Research’s recent Smart City Platforms report.

At a Municipal Information Systems Association of California (MISAC) meeting I was asked “What can city IT departments do to manage the onslaught of requests and lack of inclusion with their municipal partners?” IT departments are already pinched for budget and have their hands full with infrastructure challenges like new and evolving cyber issues, let alone managing necessary upgrades and patches across of mixed age and provenance. What can IT departments do to manage the increased number of IT requests and temper expectations of magical IT upgrades? Here are some suggestions:

  • Own the problem: Eventually all smart city programs, either deployed in a single platform or a platform of platforms, will need to be integrated with the city’s IT system. Municipal IT departments must acknowledge that the technology deployment will eventually be their responsibility and they need to prepare for it now. This could mean training staff on smart city platforms or making additional budget requests for more staff or upgraded equipment before vendors come to town. By being prepared, IT personnel can make their jobs easier while ensuring the new and effective programs are integrated more smoothly.
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  • Find internal partners: Most smart city programs have an owner, funder, or promoter in another department. Municipal IT department staff need to be proactive in finding partners in those departments to ensure that IT is part of the conversation from the start. This can help IT departments prepare, and more importantly, inform their colleagues and smart city boosters about existing systems and appropriately scope budgetary requests. Finding partnerships also entails staying involved as smart city deployments develop. The term develop is shorthand for evolve then change, get sidelined, deferred, and finally, become core to a city’s identity. City government is not for the impatient or faint at heart.
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  • Demonstrate value: Lastly, municipal IT departments may want to consider changing their approach to engaging constituents. Usually, IT works in the background, managing internally facing problems. Most citizens do not know what IT does or know the value it delivers for citizens and business alike. Smart city program deployments necessitate an opposite approach. Smart city programs are public resources. IT departments must think about how they provide value to the public, even though their primary customer is city operations itself. Being hidden and (literally) working in the trenches, can lead to being forgotten or overlooked. As IT departments provide the backbone for smart city platform deployment the public needs to know the value IT brings to the solution.
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These suggestions will not instantly solve the challenge of IT being late to the conversation. They can, however, help position municipal IT leaders to be more prepared and become a core component of smart city solutions.