The real challenges of building smart-city solutions

How to solve the digital skills gap to create even smarter cities? And how to reverse the lack of awareness of smart-city solutions? Education will be key for citizens and employees.


Urbanization Is Stressing the Need for Smart-City Solutions

By 2050, two-thirds of the global population will be living in urban areas. Currently, the percentage of people living in urban areas amounts to 55 percent, which means that urban areas will have to cope with an instream of 2.5 billion people more. To accommodate the additional needs that urbanization is causing, cities should become more efficient, sustainable and therefore smart. A smart city is defined as “a community of average technology size, interconnected and sustainable, comfortable, attractive and secure”. The number of smart-city solutions is booming, and many new technologies are being utilized to improve the city of the future. However, governments are not seeing the results they aimed for and one of the main causes for this is the digital skill gap.


The Digital Skill Gap: A Two-Factor Problem

There are two factors that define the real challenge of building smart cities. The first is the lack of awareness among citizens about what smart city solutions are and how they can add value to their lives. The second is the lack of skilled personnel to implement and maintain tech solutions on a grand scale. These are the two dynamics that make up the phenomenon of the digital skills gap.


Lack of Awareness

The problem is bigger than tech-lovers might initially believe. To start, it is important to emphasize the lack of awareness among citizens of the nature and benefits of smart-city technologies. A staggering 82 percent of UK citizens do not understand the current challenges of cities and why smart-city technologies may solve these challenges. Meaning that there is a sizeable gap between what citizens comprehend about smart city solutions and the actual potential of these solutions. When the developers’ perspective is not in sync with that of the end user, problems are guaranteed to arise


Skilled Personnel Challenge

The other side of the same coin is the lack of digital skills among employees, which are needed to form new smart technologies. Not only is there a massive demand for developers, people who will integrate and maintain the systems on site are also scarce. The unsatisfied need for digital talent is preventing governments from reaping the full benefits of the quantum leap in digitalization.


Where to Go from Here: Introducing a Transformational Process

The figure below provides a step-by-step process for local governments and developers to work on moving forward together, with the users at the center. By involving citizens in the development of smart cities and adapting education towards smart city development, the size of the digital skills gap will decrease.

The transformational process consists of five main steps: 

  • Observe your citizens
  • Citizen-led design
  • Rapid prototyping
  • Scale solution
  • Education on benefits

Figure 1: Transformational process aiming to decrease the size of the digital skills gap.


Observe Your Citizens

To provide a comprehensive solution, the problem needs to be tackled at its core. The first step should be a deep-dive into the local specifics by conducting a detailed data analysis of the citizens. For instance, analysis of infrastructure usage data can facilitate an understanding of the infrastructure needs of citizens.


Citizen-Led Design

Secondly, there is a global consensus that developers of smart-city solutions need to shift from a technology-oriented view to a citizen-centric approach. To accomplish this new dynamic, a design-thinking methodology should be applied. The insights collected in the first step provides input for the empathy phase of the design-thinking methodology. After collecting valuable insights from citizens, governments must use a bottom-up approach and use these insights to design and develop the smart city. The citizen-centric approach can be further enhanced by deep participation, raising awareness, strengthening communities and empowering citizens.


Rapid Prototyping

The ideas that follow should be used as input for rapid-prototyping development. This phase is used to test the waters and give citizens a clear product or service they can provide feedback on. Although counterintuitive, it is important to direct the attention to the parts of the prototype that are weak and expose risk to the project. Additionally, it is crucial to show the prototype to a wide range of citizens and not just to tech-savvy early-adopters. Not shying away from failure in the prototype stage will lead to higher results in the future.


Scale Solution

After the feedback is translated into a final blueprint of the smart-city solution, the solution and its infrastructure can be scaled. By leveraging the capabilities of all parties involved, through collaboration partnerships, scaling the solution is faster and easier.


Educaton on Benefits

The closing step involves educating citizens to increase their knowledge and awareness of smart-city solutions. This empowers citizens to adopt the envisioned solutions and engages them in the development of new smart-city initiatives. It is important to include citizens from different generations and backgrounds in the educational efforts. However, this requires a tailored approach that should take people's age and existing level of knowledge about technology into account. 


STEM Education for the Citizens of the Future

As an addition to education on benefits, long-term orientated education on smart-city technologies should be facilitated. Statistics, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses enable the next generation to better prepare for the future. Refocusing the education on STEM will make them more familiar with technology-driven initiatives. Figure 2 shows the short- and long-term educational goals for citizens and employees.


STEM Education for the Employees of the Future

The citizen-driven approach will not be feasible without skilled employees to implement this. Hence, we should put extensive effort into guaranteeing that the supply of digital talent can keep up with the demand. A straightforward but effective method is hiring talent from abroad to fill gaps in the short term. Additionally, countries should envision a long-term goal and develop talent internally. The skills needed by an employee are much more advanced than those of a citizen. To prepare people to become developers, governments need to invest in sophisticated learning systems that are able to keep up with the high pace of technological development. The education of the future workforce is not only the government’s responsibility, people too should take charge of their individual life-long learning path and should incorporate digital skills in their personalized curriculum. 

Figure 2: Short- and long-term educational goals for citizens and employees.


Mind the Gap: Digital Skills Are Vital for the Smart City of the Future

We’ve discussed challenges that limit the creation of truly smart cities, now and in the future. We’ve identified two common aspects: first, the lack of awareness about smart cities, what it entails and what the benefits are for citizens; and second, the existing lack of digital skills among employees that are crucial to understand and optimize technological developments. To address these problems, you can follow our transformational process that has identified the key areas that need improvement to make your city smarter. The core of the transformation is engaging citizens, by making them a partial owner of the smart-city creation process. And making sure the digital skills gap is being closed.

To utilize this, a design-thinking approach is the road to take, which is further supported by the concept of deep participation. The next step is to use the findings of the design-thinking phase as input for rapid-prototyping to create a real product. To conclude, we suggest that, for creating truly smart cities in the future, the greatest advantage can be obtained by directing the education of the next generation towards a more technology-oriented program. We need to act now, to prepare our society and all its inhabitants for smart cities.

Start too late and you’ll miss the exit towards smart-city solutions. Don’t hesitate, educate.


*) This article was written about one of our themes, living and working. You can explore the rest of our themes by following this link.


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