Why do many smart city projects end at the pilot stage?

  • Post author:
  • Post category:News
Why do many smart city projects end at the pilot stage?

By Stefan Sondermann, German Federal Association of VET Providers – BBB

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating many thoughts, ideas, and projects. Many people are tied to the home office, have become accustomed to it, and quite a few of them are considering an even further relocation to rural areas. Does COVID-19 necessarily cause cities to become deserted? No, say urban researchers, but only if cities really become smarter.

The buzzwords of “smart services” are well known: mobility on demand, smart neighborhoods, digital healthcare, digital administration, smart streets, smart shops and so on. There are no insurmountable technical hurdles in any of these areas – in theory.

But in practice, things look different. Even large pilot cities, after years of euphoria, have only a few smart bins, a few smart parking spaces and a few intelligently lit streets. Some critics therefore already see smart cities as a failure. This need not be the case, but a failure analysis and readjustment of concepts is indispensable. A few points will be highlighted in the following:

1) Cost thinking

Many Smart City projects are intended to bring about savings. It is therefore all the more important that municipalities also consider the subsequent operating costs from the outset. This is often made more difficult by the fact that there are usually sufficient subsidies and financial resources available for the projects themselves. Therefore: smarter often means smaller! There can also be creative solutions for cost recovery, for example by involving the local economy.

2) Added data value

The data gained is gold in the hands of the municipality. Why not think interdepartmentally and use the data in as many places as possible? This must go hand in hand with transparency and open communication with citizens. Data protection concerns are always the biggest concerns! The technical possibilities for maximum protection of personal data have long existed and are just waiting to be used.

3) Google as a role model?

It is hard to understand why many people are reluctant to provide personal data on a free WLAN, but later give this data to Google and other providers without hesitation and voluntarily. What is the reason? Google promises users concrete added value or additional services and communicates this openly. Smart cities should also be able to do this kind of successful marketing!

 4) Master plan

Many smart cities still make one central mistake today: there are outstanding lighthouse projects, but they are not based on a master plan or flanked by a master plan. Such a master plan is not a magic science, but requires the clarification of some fundamental points. In this way, the mistakes just mentioned can be reduced or avoided. In particular, these include:

  • What does the city want to achieve as a smart city?
  • Who should all be involved and when?
  • How can cross-disciplinary and cross-thematic thinking be applied?
  • What interfaces do I need for the multiple use of data?
  • What operating costs will the city incur later on?

5) Platform strategy

A promising and successful concept is the “Smart Cities Platform”: the municipality only operates the platform, interested private providers “dock on” and offer individual Smart Services or operate them.

6) Investment strategy

Functioning technology is available, and so is the political will. What is often lacking is the steering of money flows for sustainable investments. Well-known examples of large-scale projects that change regions profoundly and in the long term are the Olympic Games or large airports. For this reason, too, it is important to start at a smaller level and always consider and examine the benefits.

7) Infrastructure development

The accelerated expansion of infrastructure (fibre optics, 5G) is indispensable: without connectivity, there is no smart city. Every road construction project must always include the laying of empty conduits for fibre optics. A nice catchphrase sums it up: “We need connectivity down to the milk jug“.

8) Bureaucracy – just a German specialty (?)

The technical development of smart cities is rapid, but implementation is often very slow. When the project is finished after years or even decades, we often have outdated technology and/or changed needs. This frustrates citizens and in turn lowers the acceptance of new projects.


Smart cities make sense and are feasible; they offer real added value for residents. In the medium term, however, they are only the starting point for the next stage that needs to be planned and designed: smart living spaces, smart counties. So we have to start thinking ahead now.