The collective efforts of the past year to assist with vaccine distribution, expansion of last-mile delivery services, and a boom in digital software are just glimpses of the technologies that will soon enable smart cities around the world. One estimate predicted that upwards of $124 billion would be spent worldwide on smart city initiatives in 2020 on technologies that address a range of challenges from crowd control and traffic flow to communications and weather monitoring.

However, as smart city innovations multiply, governments must actively partner with technology companies and citizens to develop tools and processes that are useful, transparent, and accessible to all.

Digital Transformation Through Public-Private Partnerships 

State and local government budgets have been stressed by the pandemic. And even when they are flush with tax revenue, governments need the expertise and resources of corporate partners to adapt quickly to a changing world. Urban mobility partnerships are a great example. Cities all over the world have partnered with private services as part of their transportation networks. In Helsinki, Finland, for instance, locals can use a mobile app to plan – and buy tickets for – trips using public transit and taxis.

These partnerships allow governments to harness technology advances like mobile communications, data collection, artificial intelligence, and cashless payments. There are success stories in other sectors, too. Mexico City is working with a nonprofit organization to facilitate early earthquake detection. American cities from Las Vegas to Newark, N.J., are working with a company that designs intelligent streetlights to monitor pollution levels and traffic.

In the smart city movement, symbiotic relationships hold much promise. These initiatives are an excellent reminder of the public good that technology companies and governments can provide when they work together.

Small Cities are Becoming the Smartest Cities

Tech opportunities aren’t restricted to major urban hubs. Right now, many smaller cities have the chance to leap ahead in the technology race. As remote work becomes the norm, some estimates predict 14 million to 23 million Americans are planning to relocate – and many are choosing smaller cities’ less expensive and quieter lifestyles. Cities from Topeka, Kan. to Hamilton, Ohio, are even offering thousands of dollars in relocation incentives.

Bentonville, Ark., – home to Walmart headquarters – is already ahead of the curve. More than a decade ago, city officials noticed that professionals came for executive Walmart jobs but soon left for more appealing urban destinations. Eager to reverse this brain drain, the city collaborated with Walmart and other employers using sophisticated mapping technology and came up with a plan to rebuild downtown to attract and retain the millennial workforce. Since Bentonville began implementing the development plan a few years ago, its population has increased by almost 47 percent.

Bentonville can be a model for other cities in similar situations, ushering in a new wave of smart city development through public-private partnerships. These thoughtful infrastructure upgrades will improve the quality of life and support citizens’ needs far into the future.

Open Communication Will Lead the Way

Governments inherently have the attention of constituents. Technology companies, meanwhile, have cutting-edge research and development teams that are solely focused on innovating around human behaviors. Together, public-private partnerships have the potential to offer the best of both worlds. Especially at the state and local level, governments know what their citizens need. Technology companies have the creative muscle to bring these needs to life.

Within these partnerships, transparency about these new technologies is critical to establish trust with the public. Consider the importance of the opt-out button in generating customer goodwill. If you don’t want to take part in tracking technology, no one should force it on you. That goes for all potential initiatives in smart cities. Personal freedoms are immensely valuable to Americans, and their willing participation in smart city efforts relies on that same value.

We already have the underlying technology to create cities of the future. If leaders embrace well-designed tools and communicate their potential with honesty, they’ll win the broad trust needed to make smart cities a reality.

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