Villains and Superheroes Will Meet in Smart Communities


Boring, a job for lazy people, routine, behind the times, and thankless … all descriptions an outsider might use to describe what it’s like to work in government. Sure, things like urban planning, economic development, public works, human services, health, and code enforcement are lack luster if you don’t know government. But to insiders, elected officials and government workers are anonymous superheroes working to ward off villains that threaten to destroy the communities we live in.

Let me paint a mental picture for you. At a recent ICMA conference, a panel of city managers were asked “What keeps you up at night?” This is a question I have heard hundreds of times, and there is one recent response to this question that has stayed with me. A Florida city manager stopped, contemplated a moment and proclaimed “Not to be the next Atlantis.” He had described his villain. He asserted climate change was real and was happening to his community now. He had a difficult job of explaining to his citizens why water was going up storm drains taxpayer dollars had just paid for, and not down; why new infrastructure was needed; why flooding was taking place across the city; why citizens could not build houses on the beach; and why an entire airport runaway needed to be relocated. His response got everyone in the room thinking about their own villains.

Every community has their own villains. I have heard other government officials describe how the economic collapse had created an epidemic of squatters; how they plan to create jobs to take their community from the brink of financial ruin; how the tensions between law enforcement and citizens were tearing their city apart; how heat waves were creating an environment where bears were leaving higher elevations and roaming into town; and how infrastructure was collapsing, halting business, supply chains, and of course threating lives. These are examples of themes that act more like villains and need aggressive and innovative solutions to sustain a community.

There are traditional services like trash pick-up, permitting, and sending out tax bills that governments have to deliver, but today the villains are providing a greater purpose for governments, citizens, and business to rally around. This idea has exposed what I believe to be a missing element of the smart cities movement (though I prefer the more inclusive term smart communities to include city, county, regional, and state government). Most smart communities describe a vision of the future or using technology to achieve a digital transformation. But what are you transforming? Or using the Internet of Things (IoT) to keep connected, but connected to what? It should not be about technology, for technology’s sake, it is about achieving the goals your community sets for itself, and looking at the obstacles (or villains) that are stopping it from achieving these goals. If your goal is to be the healthiest community, what is stopping you? Is it a lack of parks, bike lanes, access to healthy foods or health care, or something else?

At the Esri User Conference a few weeks ago, leaders from India, Singapore, and Dubai described their approaches to building a smart community. A stand out was Dubai who described the purpose of their smart city was to become the “Happiest City on Earth.” They even noted they extended this mission to a colony on Mars. I’m not joking. Their smart approach was to fight off villains that hindered them from achieving this designation. They acknowledged they needed a balance of people, policy, benchmarks, and technology.

Other communities are recognizing the need for this balance as well. City of Riverside, California, Loudoun County, Virginia, City of Los Angeles, California and the State of Hawaii are using a GeoHub to present their villains, like homelessness, unemployment, and opioid abuse, to engage departments, citizens, business, and nonprofits to combat these problems as one. Think of a GeoHub as a Justice League for smart communities.

Beyond every GeoHub there are 6 foundational pillars you need to provide for to build a smart community:

  • Organize your data
  • Improve operational efficiency
  • Improve civic engagement
  • Develop a “Mobile First” mindset
  • Provide the tools for data-driven decisions
  • Set up the infrastructure for IoT

Let’s all agree government is more like Batman than Superman. Any person passionate about their community,
looking to do good in the world, who probably needs a bit of assistance from a high-tech tool or technology, can do their part to fight the forces of evil. Will you answer the call?

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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