Without a focus on action, Smart City leadership and vision count for nothing

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“Leadership is about addressing the eight most frustrating words in the English language ‘We could never do that in our town’.” – Brent Toderian

Night City by Charbel Aoun
Smart City leaders must be people of vision and action

Deciding to become a smart city is a big milestone for any city. It’s also a challenge that will touch every citizen and one that should lead to a better life for all, whilst bringing greater efficiencies and cost effectiveness.

It’s certainly not a decision for the faint-hearted. It requires strong leadership, vision and courage to hold course on a long journey of many steps, projects and initiatives that collectively combine to build a Smart City. Heraclitus (535 BC – 475 BC) is often (mis)quoted, “change is the only constant.” However, people find change difficult even though experience teaches us the future is coming whether or not we want it.

Urbanisation is projected to continue at a pace, with population growth forecasts suggesting nearly 10 million new people could be living in UK cities alone by 2035. Since demand will be of a different magnitude to anything we’ve experienced before, the resulting strain on critical resources and infrastructure means that we cannot use yesterday’s thinking to solve tomorrow’s problems.

At Schneider Electric, we’ve already worked on over 250 smart cities projects around the globe. This experience has, we believe, given us a great many insights into what is required for a successful smart city project. We’ve seen, for example, that whilst challenges may appear very different from city to city, they often have more in common than you’d think.

Since we published our white paper “The Smart City Cornerstone: Urban Efficiency” we’ve learnt more about each of the five pillars we highlighted. Strong and active leadership is fundamental to making Smart Cities happen. Often a first challenge is working to establish a common vision. By this, I mean a vision which is shared between city leadership, departments and the wider community of stakeholders including citizens.

The vision should match long term goals which a city identifies are essential for future success. With vision established, leadership is required to create and take action: To bring departments, silos and organisations together to work proactively for the greater good. This may be more evolution than revolution – a change management journey, if you like, to connect and engage all stakeholders.

This critical work in joining people up and getting them excited about the possibilities for the future is fundamental. It is also a task that needs to be revisited daily because without this work, it is not likely you’ll achieve the scale of transformation you seek.

From here it takes courage, patience and persistence to overcome obstacles, challenges and the multitude of reasons a project might not work. We succeed when we bring everyone together to work on a collective goal. It’s a question of eating the elephant by distributing a great many small spoons and everyone taking a share.

Leaders need to inspire shared vision and holistic engagement, making sure that no one is left behind on the journey. But they must also be people of action, ready to roll up their own sleeves and lead by example. Talk the talk, of course. But walk the talk too.

It’s also critical that leaders look far beyond their own term of office and transcend the usual party politics. Creating the city of the future won’t be completed in a 4 or 5 year timeframe and leaders need cross party support for long term transformations and a better, more successful future.

To keep the vision alive along the way, it’s vital to celebrate and communicate every single success. Even delivering “low-hanging fruit” – smaller projects within the common vision – brings confidence. It also reduces resistance to change, which often makes people fearful. Programmes that help people feel engaged and comfortable with the path forwards are incredibly important.

Throughout, strong and courageous leadership can and must work day by day to build engagement, consensus and a commitment to action. In my experience, the cities we observe making progress are the ones with leaders that both inspire and act.

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality” Warren Bennis

For more information on Schneider Electric’s smart city solutions, visit our website.

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