Making cities smart

As humans increasingly migrate toward urban areas, new obstacles—and opportunities—arise. What’s the difference between success and failure? Obtaining—and making the most of—good data.


This article was created for and commissioned by Grant Thornton.


Martin O’Malley’s aha moment came in the mid-1990s, when he was a Baltimore city councilor. Struggling with a surging crime rate, city leaders were searching for answers. They looked to New York City, where a relatively new program called CompStat was credited for a sharp decline in crime rates. CompStat took a novel approach to policing, relying on a steady stream of data to determine where best to deploy the city’s cops. “I brought a delegation to New York from Baltimore and we watched wide-eyed as real-time information came in,” O’Malley recalls. “I kept thinking, Wow, we should do this for the whole city government.”

And that’s precisely what O’Malley did after being elected mayor of Baltimore in 1999. His CitiStat program helped city officials use data to inform their approach to a range of issues, from crime to trash collection. In 2007, as governor of Maryland, he expanded that program to StateStat, where pinpoint data helped O’Malley’s administration figure out where kids needed to improve their reading scores and which parts of the Chesapeake Bay needed to be cleaned up.

O’Malley’s efforts were pioneering. Few U.S. leaders had embraced the gospel of data at that time. Now, however, urban leaders are relying on data-driven tools to help them reimagine how government can address the challenges—both big and small—cities face every day. Their goal is to transform them into smart cities—locales that make the most out of emerging technologies, such as internet-connected sensors, and that use good data to help their leaders run them more effectively.

The urban trend

In the coming decades, as more people migrate to the bright lights of the big city, those challenges may become more intense. In 2000, just 47% of the American population lived in cities. By 2050, that figure is estimated to be nearly 70%. This urban migration has benefits, including fueling more robust and diverse economies.


As urban populations swell, however, today’s challenges become even more difficult to manage. Cities will have to grapple with pollution, increased vehicle and pedestrian congestion, security, housing, cost-of-living and poverty issues, and environmental concerns. Good data on traffic patterns, air quality, crime, and even school test scores can help leaders manage cities more efficiently and effectively.

Data-driven strategies are already being used in city halls and statehouses around the country. Atlanta is using route data collected from cyclists to inform infrastructure improvements. Drivers in Pittsburgh can check an app to quickly locate vacant parking spaces, reducing traffic and vehicle-related pollution. Bellevue, Washington, is partnering with the University of Washington and Microsoft to use data from traffic cameras to analyze traffic flows and reduce accidents.

Data also can be used for social good: Boston is using administrative data from 311 and 911 calls to better understand how and why civic engagement varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. And data can help social services agencies and city departments keep better track of vulnerable citizens, then deliver services more effectively to those in need. “A lot of people think that the great promise of smart cities is the ability to manage the masses,” O’Malley says. “I find the greater promise is in our ability not to lose track of the individual.”

Data also can help leaders make decisions more quickly. Feedback from data is almost immediate, compared with quarterly or annual results that may trickle in through more traditional ways of gathering information. “That real-time feedback helps to create programs that are dynamic and can adjust alongside a pulsing, living city,” O’Malley says.

The power of partners


The old ways of running city government may not work for smart cities, says Srikant Sastry, national managing principal, Advisory Services at Grant Thornton LLP. Do elected officials, for instance, have the management acumen to make these types of programs effective? “Leaders have opportunities to drive meaningful improvements in the lives of the people who live in their cities, but these improvements can’t all be implemented through policy,” he says. “Leaders need to develop a management mindset and figure out how to make these programs work so they deliver the right outcomes.”

Leaders also face other risks as they adopt data-driven strategies. Being the first to try something new—and unproven—can create political risks. There are also economic uncertainties: Can a city afford to buy and maintain thousands of internet-connected sensors or undertake other big-ticket data-collection projects?

Forging partnerships with the private sector can mitigate some of these risks. O’Malley is senior fellow and advisory council chair of MetroLab Network, a Washington, D.C.–based group that helps share best practices among cities and fosters collaborations between municipalities and universities. Partnerships with universities can provide cities with a wealth of expertise in disciplines such as computational science, mathematics, and engineering—all areas that can be valuable in collecting, crunching, and using the data collected by cities.

Public-private partnerships also can play a key role in helping to fund transformational projects, whether ambitious infrastructure developments or public health programs.

Consider the case of Louisville, Kentucky, where poor air quality contributed to a larger-than-normal population of asthma sufferers. City leaders in 2015 teamed with a health care startup called Propeller Health and several nonprofits, local businesses, and advocacy groups to track asthma patients’ use of their inhalers. A sensor made by Propeller was attached to the inhalers, collecting environmental conditions such as air pollution and pollen counts, along with when and where the inhalers were used. The work allowed Louisville to communicate information that helped health care providers develop better treatment plans for patients. The result? By 2017, the use of asthma inhalers had fallen by 82% and asthma patients reported more than double the number of symptom-free days.


“We don’t see smart cities as a public-sector initiative,” Sastry says. “Instead, it’s the public sector and the commercial sector working together. Cities shouldn’t have to do this on their own. Corporate citizens should step up and be willing to help move their cities forward.”

Smart cities are addressing the pressing issues they face today. Laying the foundation now means they can make more informed decisions going forward, potentially ushering in transformational changes in urban areas. “The future for cities is bright,” O’Malley says. “But it’s going to require leaders who are fearless in embracing new technologies and new ways of getting things done, and who are comfortable following the data wherever it leads.”


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