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Smart city challenges - the key for success is skills

Smart city challenges - the key for success is skills

Dimitar Hristov

This short article is motivated by the upcoming webinar “Mapping technologies and design thinking for smart cities”, in which the cluster is co-organizer and a value-chain support organization. After an in-depth study under the Skills4Cities project, of recent reports on the problems, constraints, and challenges which the smart city projects face the cluster team identified the main challenges related to the development, management, and implementation of Smart City projects.

The urban organism is a complex system, involving many different domains, infrastructures, organizations, and activities. All these systems need to integrate and work together effectively for that city to become smart. This integration needs to take place at many levels, technical, but also about the integration of business processes and management, integrated strategies, and regulations. It is clearly impossible to develop a single model of a smart city that will be simple enough and at the same time enough comprehensive to cover all the key aspects. While urban infrastructure may provide facilities to the citizens, it can only be converted into smart solutions and services through the use of digital technology. Digital technology has the main role in the implementation of Smart City solutions in the city.

While implementation of the digital technology solution shall immensely enhance the effectiveness of the urban infrastructure, there is very little capacity amongst the city administrators to understand and implement such technology solutions effectively. Thus, the cities and the professionals working in this field face innumerable challenges in implementing Smart City projects. Of course, thе list below is not exhaustive and surely there are many other challenges that arise due to the complexity of those projects. However, we agreed they are most common and relevant in relation to the skill gaps of the experts who are involved in such projects.

  • Technological challenges

Most of the Technology solutions in the Smart City space belong to advanced technologies like Internet of Things (IoT) based data acquisition and analysis, Advanced data analytics using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Use of advanced Video technology. While the implementing practitioners do not have to get into the details of these technologies, there is a need for them to at least know the nuances of these technologies. However, such working knowledge of these technologies is very often missing from the Smart City practitioners/professionals in the field. Another aspect of the technological challenges that should be emphasized is the implementation of advanced information technology projects. Typically, city municipalities are involved in the implementation of urban infrastructure projects. However, the life cycle of implementing an urban infrastructure project differs a lot from that of an advanced Information technology project. Lack of knowledge in implementing large Information Technology projects severely limits the ability of the municipalities in implementing such projects.

  • Financial constraints

Transforming the regular city into a smart one requires big budget allocations. One of the reasons is the lack of a general understanding and vision of the big picture behind a smart city project, which is usually multidisciplinary and requires knowledge in different aspects, especially including basic knowledge and comprehension of the financial dimension of an advanced information technology project. Another viewpoint is that of the needed public-private partnerships. Such partnerships are required but sometimes difficult to manage and this could be one of the constraints for the successful development and implementation of Smart City projects. In many cases, it shows out that procurement processes are not designed for quick application of innovative Smart City solutions/projects.

  • Collaboration among stakeholders and governmental restraints

Another challenge is how to make stakeholders come together and achieve a sense of collective responsibility and common purpose. Usually, Smart City projects require multiple departments to align. It is not rare that the progress of such complex and multidisciplinary projects is slowed by elections or other political cycle challenges. Sometimes city departments or employees resist the implementation of disruptive systems exactly because they lack the specific knowledge and competencies for it to comprehend and elaborate. Last but not least, should also be considered that Smart City projects in most cases are pre-assumed as such bearing many potential risks for politicians in case they opt to be the first movers to implement them. Sometimes the communication of Smart City projects relevance and importance is not communicated well. This, leading to misconceptions about the usage and the application of such projects and the resistance from one side of the citizens, and from another side – from the municipal authorities to go after introducing such projects.

  • Management and organizational challenges

Smart City projects usually involve different stakeholders. Therefore, Smart City projects need smarter management.  It is a huge challenge to follow and coordinate Smart City projects. To make it successful smart city project should involve stakeholders within the whole process, but also have the respective competencies and knowledge to coordinate all stakeholders of different fields of expertise. A structured and disciplined approach to project governance can help, along with capacity building in the specific Smart City projects topics, at least those targeting the main Smart City projects domains.

  • Social challenges 

When it comes to ensuring inclusion while building smart cities, examples of unsuccessfully implemented initiatives could prove to be quite helpful. Failing to ensure inclusion could potentially negate even the best intentions. For example, a city may fail to launch a healthcare initiative for elderly citizens because most of them don’t know how to use the technology. Thus, smart city initiatives should be implemented in a way that fosters social inclusion and speaks to all categories of citizens, not just the well-off and tech-savvy ones.

Considering the abovementioned findings could be concluded that the biggest issues when implementing Smart City projects are not about the technology itself but rather the problems that arise when the ideas have to be put into action and related to these professionals with relevant expertise and specific competencies that are able to either develop or manage or implement such complex and multidisciplinary projects as the Smart City ones.

Therefore, all of the above-mentioned challenges require a specific set of skills and knowledge to be a smart city professional/practitioner. Such professionals who have a good understating of the underlying information and communication technology, effective management of such technology-intensive projects, good procurement and financial acumen, and great communication skills, will alone be successful in implementing such projects.


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