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A Tale of Two Smart Cities
Private Networks for Innovation - 7 Dec 2021
A Tale of Two [Smart] Cities

smart cities, open data and the post-platform world

JC Gellidon / Unsplash

If we’ve learned anything in the last thirty years, it’s that siloed information and non-interoperable systems aren’t the solution to anything. Anything digital that human beings invent must be connected and open, while remaining completely secure and privacy-protecting.


Today, many equipment, software and smart services players are embracing the concept of “Smart Cities” in their march towards urban digital transformation. But for cities to become truly smart, new relationships and interactions must be enabled not only for the many traditional equipment players—e.g. utilities, transportation, buildings, emergency services, and so on—but for all stakeholders. Networks are about communication, and communication requires the open flow of information. If we don’t get that straightened out, we’re doomed to create an even larger collection of incompatible systems, devices and information-islands.

If we’ve learned anything in the last thirty years, it’s that siloed information and non-interoperable systems aren’t the solution to anything. Anything digital that human beings invent must be connected and open, while remaining completely secure and privacy-protecting.

And yet the many manufacturers and advocacy groups keep spinning out different tales about the smart city of the future. There’s the “technology optimist” tale told by large multi-national equipment manufacturers, telcos and a long list of software and IT vendors. This one advocates a top-down, command-and-control approach that leaves the manufacturers and their proprietary technologies at the center of the world.

Diametrically opposed to that tale is the “pragmatist” version—and by pragmatist we mean anyone living in a large city and observing the complexity and rapidly changing dynamics which pervade any urban center. This tale accepts that siloed information and incompatible systems will always exist, and that our path into the future will be messy.

Which of these smart city tales should we believe?

If you ask us, neither, and that’s because the best tale of all isn’t being told here. The proper technology development path to building smart cities is to reject the idea of centralized control centers and impose order onto chaos the sane way, with an overriding information architecture that builds a “system of systems” approach from open data.

Ask fifteen people to define a smart city and you’ll get fifteen definitions. But if you implement a smart city the way we’ve just outlined, all those definitions can be correct, and full citizen involvement in the future of that city will always be appropriate and welcomed.

Traditional Value Chains Are Merging to Form Synergistic Ecosystems

source: Harbor Research


New smart city technologies are showing promise in their ability to alleviate citizen and agency stakeholder pain-points, but the diversity of technologies and the number of applications and integration dimensions create numerous hurdles to adoption. While many cities are beginning to modernize aging infrastructure, embracing technologies to improve their essential urban systems and enable more effective resource utilization are, at the very least, a very complex challenge.

Bold pronouncements of smarter urban environments often highlight benefits such as increased efficiency, predictability and security. We hear about transportation infrastructure that will enable us to get to work on time; or interactive enablement to improve our shopping experience; or new systems that will protect us from the dangers of urban crime. Technocratic stability, modernity and progress are all messages streaming at us from new smart city marketing campaigns.

All of these smart city programs tend to assume that whatever the scale of the city, they all share similar characteristics, organizing principles, structures, protocols and practices. If we can just measure the right sensor parameters, goes the story, we can control anything, right up to an entire city. Even more misleading is the assumption that as long as we upgrade the physical infrastructure of cities, citizens will simply go about their business happy and satisfied. Such assumptions leave little room for rapidly changing urban dynamics, the inevitable technical issues and discontinuities, and vital citizen engagement and involvement. Smartness arises in expanded human interactions and creativity, not in physical infrastructures.


To be a truly smart city, data must be able to travel freely across systems, allowing information from disparate city operations to feed one another and increase their overall value to citizens. Open urban architectures are like bridges built at private expense for public benefit. Everybody wants to collect the tolls, but few are prepared for the major challenges they will face to build and maintain the bridge. The size and scale of the undertaking would seem to favor larger companies, but more often it is the smaller, nimbler innovators that drive real applied value.

Despite the adoption challenges, we see a growing recognition of the need for a new generation of open platforms that can unify a city’s physical infrastructure, device data and citizen interactions into new innovative smart services. The opportunity is substantial but an understanding of the requirements for such platforms and their adoption is lagging.

Today’s platforms for Smart Systems and the IoT should be taking on the toughest challenges of interoperability, information architecture and user complexity, but they’re not. We need to creatively evolve to an entirely new approach that avoids the confinements and limitations of today’s differing platforms—a “post platform” world where truly open data and information architecture can easily integrate diverse machines, data, information systems and people. This will be a world where no artificial barriers exist between different types of information. It will be a world where smarter systems smoothly interact to create systemic intelligence.

This future smart city will depend on open data and improved data partnerships between technology vendors, OEMs, software innovators and governments to free information from assets and systems for the user’s benefit.


Smart City programs cannot be defined by a single “top down” approach or central organizing schema that sets preprogrammed limits. They will be defined by individual citizens, who are motivated to collaborate with each other to create new use cases and applications that solve specific local problems. Smart cities will be places that foster creativity, where citizens are generators of ideas, services and solutions, rather than subservient and passive recipients of them.

Lack of vision, incomplete alliance networks and technical barriers have kept a range of technology suppliers from taking a more active and central role in smart city market development. In addition, we have the privacy issues surrounding acquisition, storing and analyzing data on private citizens. The governmental bodies that aggregate smart-city information must have completely transparent practices in place and known to the public. Only this will assure citizens that their data is not being sold, traded or otherwise misused.


In the IoT generally, but especially in smart cities, many stakeholders will not be human beings. In fact, the vast majority won’t even be complex machines. They’ll be simple sensors and actuators. The fundamental premise of the IoT is that everything, right down to those sensors, will be connected and able to talk to everything else. In simple and even compound IoT applications (e.g., smart buildings), this hasn’t posed a great problem since the devices and data are typically owned and controlled by one organization. And the data themselves are typically in known formats, gathered into one central repository, and operated on with consistent engineering.

But when we venture into the wild of smart cities, the combinatorial explosion quickly surpasses anything we’ve ever dealt with successfully. Most real-world data continue to be siloed and stored in their own realms, and this is not going to change, even in the distant future. Human reality and the data describing it are a messy affair to say the least, and that reality is complicated further by the need to respect personal and organizational privacy restrictions (e.g., HIPAA). For this reason alone, centralizing the world’s data in a single repository is not going to happen.


Data ecosystems organized by players such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix have demonstrated that they can create enormous value for B2C businesses. These companies and similar peers have a unified usage and data relationship with their respective users. They don’t require additional data sources to create value within their business models. Mobile phone data-feeds come from virtually every customer today, providing consumer Internet players with just about everything they would ever want to know about their users.

But B2B alliance and ecosystem development for smart systems today looks nothing like the mobile and consumer Internet worlds. Why? Well, the mobile phone business spent years looking for its killer application and, as things turned out, the killer application ended up being the ecosystem of application developers that drove the rapid growth of the iOS and Android platforms.

Though data and apps are also the core value creation mechanisms within Smart Systems and the IoT, the B2B world that enables so much of the Smart City arena doesn’t have the same unified sources or monolithic usage tracking and analytics that the consumer world utilizes to make money. In fact, reliable sources estimate that they lack half the data needed to inform new application values and fulfill urban application opportunities.

Smart cities are a data challenge; legacy tech dev cultures fall short

source: Harbor Research


As B2C and B2B networked business models inch closer to each other in the marketplace, it is increasingly evident that the consumer Internet models provide many lessons for the “cloistered” B2B players. The benefits of large-scale collaboration, data ecosystems and developer communities in the B2B dimension of the Internet of Things arena are just beginning to be recognized.

What can the Internet of Things learn from this? What would B2B data ecosystems for the Internet of Things look like and what potential could they inform? How should innovative players, large or small, engage in new collaborative data relationships to drive market development? Are there fundamental barriers that need to be overcome? What maneuvers can players execute to address them?

Data will never come from a single unified source. What technology players looking to leverage data collaboration—or benefit from connecting diverse “smart products” to the Internet—need to understand is that we have entered a phase in the marketplace where data with real practical value can originate from just about anywhere. It simply needs to be better organized, facilitated and orchestrated.

The collection of dull and dreary “solo” solutions—like equipment automation, meter reading, and fleet tracking applications—that comprise a significant percentage of the IoT world today are really simple applications focused on remote diagnostics or tracking/location services that don’t really need to be “open for data sharing.”

Moving from such “simple” applications to “compound” applications—for example, monitoring and acting on all the services in a factory or a skyscraper—involves multiple collaborating systems with significant interactions between and among devices, systems, people and vendors. No longer is the focus solely on the product supplier’s ability to deliver support for their product efficiently. Rather, value is brought to the customer through new process-automation and systems optimization. But open data sharing between and among B2B OEMs would best be described as a mythic future state.


Between the complexities of “compound” applications and the culture and behavior of B2B OEMs, it is difficult to imagine freely open and fluid data ecosystems. However, the need to combine and integrate diverse application systems, data and data sources will soon become the very air that business breathes.

Each city system has evolved over time to serve a specific need or want of citizens. Collectively, they form a system of systems. Each individual system is a collection of public and private agencies and organizations that span multiple domains. Although today’s collection of siloed systems meets diverse needs and wants, it is not particularly efficient. City systems are not simply interrelated; they are often highly dependent on each other.

But how do businesses who become more connected, open and willing to share data change their underlying concepts of “ownership” and yet remain distinct and profitable?

We believe the only real sane path to data sharing will require changing the risk/reward formulas for data alliances and relationships. This involves three interrelated elements:

  • A vision for how data collaboration networks will drive “catalytic” innovation to help focus participants;
  • An architecture to organize value creation with data which provides leverage to reduce the investment and effort participants need to get access, and provides tools and easier ways to fuse and use data;
  • Relationship enablers and economic incentives which persuade participants that the ecosystem developer is serious and can really scale entirely new value creation via data sharing and new services delivery systems.

Leveraging data and software innovations is creating the potential for visionary OEMs to step into the important role of “data orchestrator”—that is, to become the facilitators of the orchestration process. Data orchestrators who facilitate and leverage digital platforms and shared data will enable new alliances based upon co-creation, and these partnerships will become increasingly important from a Smart City perspective.◆

This essay is supported by our Smart Systems Market Insight “The Future of Data in Smart Cities.”

Fill out the form below to download it for free.

Future of Data in Smart Cities cover

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