It takes a village: How to cultivate innovation across your smart city



By 2021, spending on smart city technology is expected to reach $135 billion. But a truly ‘smart’ city needs more than connected street signs, self-driving cars, smart parking meters, and hyperloops to thrive.

Although such technologies promise to streamline transportation, enhance public safety and improve sustainability, they are simply that – technologies. At the root of the most successful, sustainable smart cities must be an atmosphere of collaborative innovation, or “co-innovation”, involving its most valuable resource: people.

To inspire your city’s people to bring forward new ideas for solving age-old challenges, you’ll need a base camp of sorts – a centralized hub where tech experts, government officials, academics, students, startups, and more can come together to incubate scalable solutions. In other words, you’ll need a center of innovation.


To inspire your city’s people to bring forward new ideas for solving age-old challenges, you’ll need a base camp of sorts – the concept of innovation centers is spreading fast.


The concept of innovation centers is spreading fast and you’ll find hundreds of these hubs around the world, from New York’s Center for Discovery to Durham, North Carolina’s American Underground start-up hub, to the UK’s IDEALondon.

However, ensuring these centers’ co-innovation efforts deliver scalable digital solutions that put your smart city on the map requires some careful planning. Whether you’re a tech company or startup looking to make your local footprint, a municipality or government planning for the next wave of digital transformation in your city, or even a university or college trying to get your students more involved in their community, consider the following elements when setting up your innovation center.


Location, location, location


From my experience, setting up and operating more than a dozen innovation centers worldwide, the city, district, region, and even street you select for your innovation center will set the stage for future growth.

However, don’t necessarily base your decision on city size or popularity. Rather, choose a city with a proven entrepreneurial base, a blend of both startups and established businesses, academic institutions, and local government leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to invest in the community.


Choose a city with a proven entrepreneurial base.


For example, cities that have previously hosted – or are preparing to host – the Olympic Games make great homes for innovation centers. These cities have already invested in infrastructure, technologies, and services to host the world’s largest events and are equipped to grow smart city services in a big way.

In fact, leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics, the city of Rio de Janeiro partnered with enterprise technology companies to deploy a city-wide Internet of Things (IoT) platform that enabled smart city services for the many visitors. Long after the games finished and the stadiums emptied, the technology remains, continuing to provide services to local citizens and a foundation for dozens of local startups and developers to build upon.


Similarly, choose a city or area whose digital, economic, industrial, and social priorities align with your innovation center’s goals. Which vertical industries – such as security, manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, or energy – are prominent in the region? Many of these complement one another, so it’s always good to aim for a repeatable process so your innovation center can co-innovate solutions that can be replicated across different industries and even around the globe.


People, partners, and ecosystems


Location is important, but it’s the people who make it work. As mentioned, innovation isn’t just technology or services; it’s a state of mind, involving people, their ideas, their experiences, and their passions.

For example, a local government could introduce smart streetlights to improve energy efficiency, but that alone will not make it a smart city. To be truly innovative, the city should allow developers, startups, and other organizations to access the data from the streetlights to build additional, complementary applications and services.


Cities such as San Diego have done this, with local government, enterprise organizations, and startups coming together to develop applications that use smart streetlights to monitor air pollution, listen for broken glass or car crashes, and even help manage traffic congestion. To build a truly smart city, it takes businesses, municipalities, and citizens collaborating to instill a city-wide culture of innovation, as well as implement the underlying, 21st-century network infrastructure to support all the emerging, innovative IoT connections.


As these individuals come together, you’ll see a diverse ecosystem forming. The most successful innovation centers are filled with a blend of customers, partners, government, academics, startups, and enterprises across multiple industries. With subject matter experts sharing insights from every walk of life, these individuals and teams can brainstorm, exchange best practices, and co-innovate in ways that benefit not only their individual communities but can also be utilized far and wide. In other words, the best ideas and ‘light-bulb’ moments come when a group of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences come together to create magic.


The network multiplier effect


Once you have established your innovation center with the right blend of people and technologies, don’t stop there. Set your sights on where you might be able to set up a second and third hub, and beyond, and begin interconnecting them as a network.

Although your innovation center may be focused on solving a local problem (like reducing traffic or air pollution), other cities, regions, and even countries are facing the same challenges. When multiple hubs are co-innovating to solve local problems, it is easier to share ideas and best practices, allowing solutions to be scaled globally to create exponential social and economic value. The greater the network, the greater the value to all participants – hence, the network multiplier effect.


When multiple hubs are co-innovating to solve local problems, it is easier to share ideas and best practices, allowing solutions to be scaled globally.


A great example of this phenomenon comes from the Mi-IDEA co-innovation center, in Manchester, England. Working with a robust ecosystem of 21 partners from local startups, universities, government research institutions, and leading technology companies, Mi-IDEA has launched CityVerve.

A smart city demonstrator, CityVerve is exploring the use of Internet-enabled technologies across Manchester to improve transportation, air quality, energy efficiency, and the delivery of healthcare services. These homegrown solutions are now serving as a blueprint for smart cities worldwide through collaboration with other innovation centers and their ecosystems around the world.

As the old saying goes: “It takes a village.” In the age of smart cities, this adage could not be truer.

Indeed, the ‘smartest’ of cities needs to roll out more than just cutting-edge technologies and services – they need a growing community of inspired people to help bring to life scalable solutions for today’s problems. By establishing a fertile environment where innovation centers bring together the brightest minds to co-innovate and scale their solutions, cities can create lasting legacies of innovation that help communities thrive for generations to come.


This article originally appeared in SmartCitiesWorld on December 18, 2018