This past week I had the honor and privilege of moderating a panel on Key Leadership Factors at the fall Smart Cities Connect (SC Connect) conference in Tampa, FL USA. https://fall.smartcitiesconnect.org

This spring, while I was considering what topic to submit for SC Connect, I’d just finished co-producing a Smart City Accelerator workshop in San Diego, hosted by my friend David Graham, Deputy COO of the City of San Diego, and chaired by Dr. David Ricketts, an Innovation Fellow at Harvard. I was full of ideas and trying to make sense not only of the huge amount of info I’d heard discussed in the breadth of the Smart Cities discussion, but also the enormous complexity presented by the needs and challenges across the 27 cities in attendance.

What I realized, from the many amazing conversations with city decision makers and industry partners at the Accelerator, was an underlying theme of Leadership. It was not a topic we had tackled directly, but what stood out to me is that leadership underpins every successful Smart Cities project that’s shown significant results, and even many that haven’t.

Looking at the topic category choices for SC Connect, leadership was not even among them. Aha! I see leadership as a key factor that’s often not addressed directly, so I pitched the idea to the SC Connect organizers. Accepted, my panel ended up being the “anchor” – the last session of the conference. For what can be a bad spot to be stuck in, I’m very happy to say the room was nearly full.

Here are the key learnings I took away from the 80 minutes of excellent conversation we shared:

Simply communicating regularly with commitment can make a major difference. Craig Hopkins, the CIO explained how they innovate successfully in the City of San Antonio, TX. They’ve created a council of CIOs from nine key regional agencies who meet monthly to ensure they’re tracking together on major projects. Traditionally not collaborative with each other, they’re consciously and effectively breaking down the silos between their organizations. For any given project, one agency takes the lead and responsibility for success, and the others follow as appropriate. Although not always in complete agreement, they have focused on building effective collaboration, trust through personal relationships and sharing. Buy-in across the board has made a world of difference in inter-agency cooperation, allocation of resources, funding, and in taking responsibility for getting projects done.

Experiment, learn, and pivot. Dr. David Ricketts, an Innovation Fellow at Harvard, shared many insights and examples in how innovative thinking works, and how cities can effectively innovate. A big need is to develop an innovation plan that defines how the process of prototyping new ideas is different from business as usual in the city. Understanding how to express value to citizens and leadership is vitally important to getting funding and support. Suggesting that developing the ability to fail, especially in failing fast and moving on, should become cultural sparked much discussion. Craig Hopkins of San Antonio observed: “I tried that and was rebuked by a City Councilman warning that the City had better never fail!” Quickly turning away from the negative connotation of failure, Craig said the positive “experiment, learn, and pivot” actions totally changed the conversation. Bingo for the win!

Find out the problems citizens have and solve them. Miguel Gamino gave several compelling examples of this approach through NYCx initiatives when he was CTO of New York City. Starting with experiments in some of the toughest places in NYC, they spent time in the community getting real input from citizens and then involving them in solutions. Miguel, now EVP of the City Possible program at Mastercard, observed that doing things for the right reasons makes the right things happen. “Listening better” to what the real issues are, and building effective partnerships are key to success in many projects. This mindset recognizes the primary goal of Smart Cities projects is about helping people, and not about technology or policy or focus on ROI. Realizing that technology is simply an enabler empowers a whole new way of thinking and doing projects.

Customize products and services to optimize procurement. Cited as a major issue by many cities, the old rules of procurement no longer serve us in today’s dynamic scenario of rapid experimentation in a startup-driven environment. Jamie Ponce, of the City Tech Collaborative in Chicago observes that Smart Cities are a journey, not a destination. Reducing barriers during the journey makes the process much more effective, such as forming cross-sector partnerships that are easy to talk about but very challenging in practice. As with updating procurement systems, many-to-many partnerships must overcome strategic and tactical barriers to be successful. Helping break down those barriers is done by finding projects rooted in pressing public needs, both municipal and resident, and championed by mayors, CIOs, and senior leaders who understand how and why technology and new ways of thinking can address those needs.

Share, measure, and learn. Tools are important to help local governments streamline the innovation process. A great tool provides value but stays out of the way. Arik Bronshtein of UrbanLeap emphasized the ability to share ideas and collaborate in real-time, centralizing document management, and easing workflow and decision making. Knowing relevant metrics and measuring outcomes are important to more effective collaboration both within the city, and also including vendors and partners. Providing the ability to communicate internally across city departments is critical, as internal silos can be as difficult to break down as those silos external to the city staff. At the end of the day, what really excites cities is to learn from other cities, to share their experiences, and build off the success of others – all factors enabled by tools that make the job easier.