twilight in Austin
Cities like Austin, Boston and San Francisco are recognizing their citizens as their customers, and striving to deliver the best digital experiences PHOTO: Katie Montgomery

The Wall Street Journal published a story last year titled “What Makes Austin’s Economy Like Boston’s.” The piece talked about “knowledge capitals,” where factors like education, connectivity and business acumen converge. 

Many of the cities included on this list are also called “smart cities.” 

A Smart City Definition

A common definition of smart cities is a city with smart roads infrastructure: synchronized traffic lights, smart street lighting, smart parking technology. But to me, it isn’t about specific technology. Broadly, I liken smart cities to those that adopt a sharp focus on digitalized citizen services, making the interaction with City Hall easier and less painful.

It’s a mindset. Smart cities view people and businesses as consumers, and acknowledge the high expectations those individuals have for efficient and seamless experiences — both of the digital and real-world variety. 

Smart cities look in the mirror and don’t see career bureaucrats. Instead, they see change agents and enablers bent on making life easier, more satisfying and more streamlined for constituents — even if they need to interact with the tax collector’s office. 

Smart cities like Austin, Boston, Washington D.C. or San Francisco share many traits: the presence of colleges and universities, innovative businesses and an upwardly mobile workforce. They show economic growth, and understand catering to the needs of citizens, visitors and business owners requires dynamic action, not complacency. 

Smart cities strive to build organization-wide momentum, and create a culture of innovation where the city and its people's needs are understood. 

Here’s how smart cities approach citizen digital experiences. 

Smart Cities Recognize - and Welcome - the Need for Change

Smart cities (and their leaders) drive inspiration and encourage innovation to improve life for everyone. They strive to reimagine their role and the city’s place in the lives of real people. 

In a smart city, citizens and businesses have a say in the way they interact with their city, and they’re invited to weigh in on what could be better. 

They also invite change from within. Employees in any city office can easily get comfortable with the way things are done, and resist change as a result. 

A great digital experience on the city level often requires a bold city leader speaking up and making a case for change. It’s not chasing digital for digital’s sake. It’s reimagining the role of government and city agencies to aid the flow of information, make services available online and give the needs of citizens and businesses precedence.

Smart Cities Knock Down Barriers to Services

When I think about communicating with cities and towns and touching their services, I can’t help but fall back on clichés: long lines, lengthy forms, inter-office couriers bringing documents back and forth, and a sense that there’s a barrier between what people want and what people can access easily. 

But the smartest cities have a customer-first mindset, and use digital to carry out their vision. 

Doing this requires cities to reorient institutional thinking to become a city serving its people, not the other way around. This could mean improving how police manage records, how schools approach learning in the classroom and beyond, or even a seamless way for citizens to report problems like potholes on their commute to work.

The city will still roll out an asphalt truck and a small team to fill that pothole. But in an ideal world, behind each of these changes is a successful digital experience strategy helping to ensure easy communication, information flow and a responsive mindset ready to solve problems.

It can start as simply as fixing the city website. 

Instead of site navigation that feels like you’re looking at the directory in the lobby of City Hall (First floor: City Clerk, Second floor: Tax Assessor, Third floor: Social Services), the best city websites take an outside-in approach. They think, “what is the visitor trying to accomplish online?" If they want to look up their property tax bill, don’t make them guess — guide them to what they need. Are parking meters still in effect on a holiday weekend? Make this type of useful, pragmatic information front and center at the right times.

Smart Cities Think Like a Startup

The smartest cities also tend to think and act like startups to get things done in the quickest and most efficient way possible. One-week sprints for building and deploying digital tools might be one of the last things you'd expect in a city office. But when content people, designers, developers and product managers work together in this format, far-away digital experience goals gradually become reality. 

It’s about bringing everyone together, across teams. Keeping departments siloed doesn’t spur innovation in a startup, and it certainly doesn’t work on the city level. 

Smart Cities Empower Innovators - Everywhere

While having the right technology in place is crucial for a successful digital experience, cities — like any organization — need to understand the problems they’re solving before they think about the tools. 

Smart cities take a deep dive into the identities of those living in, working in and visiting their city to understand how, when and where those individuals want to interact (which includes the people working in their own office). Smart cities closely consider what information people are looking for before deciding how to deliver it. 

Only then can city leaders implement the right technology to do things better, faster and in a more responsive way. 

There’s a pent-up demand in many city departments to take action and do more with the city’s digital services. Those people just need the tools and resources to put their ideas into action. 

They may see an opportunity to move a form online, develop a better web presence for their department or design a better flyer — they just don’t know how. Or maybe the local fire department knows the top questions citizens ask when they call about their smoke detectors and someone has an innovative idea for making those answers more accessible. City leaders are in the business of helping those who are driving change. 

Smart Cities Don’t Go it Alone 

Unlike private sector companies, cities aren’t in direct competition with one another, which opens up an often-untapped opportunity to learn from cities who’ve already made digital experience strides. 

Collaborating with other cities to discuss common hurdles, share tips on writing contracts or even learn ideal job titles and descriptions needed to build a more digital city can go a long way. Some cities even go so far as to make the code for their website accessible to anyone.