The 20 Building Blocks of Successful Community Digitalization (complete version)

How to turn your Smart City Initiative into success: a Framework of 20 Building Blocks for successful community digitalization strategies

By Bas Boorsma, Author of “A New Digital Deal” 

(The below article was originally published as two blogs by the Smart City Council, September 2017)

What does it take to carve out a smart city strategy with reasonable odds of success? The nature of the community may differ of course. The community in focus does not have to be a city in fact – it might be a state, a large campus, a village, a cluster of villages, a country, a city or a region. The aims may differ too: they can range from articulating a community’s response to ‘the digital powers-that-be’ – such as Uber or Airbnb coming to town – to a daring, proactive smart city plan or a country digitalization agenda. Different sizes, needs, aims and cultures produce different strategies and different outcomes of course. Having said that, we can learn many lessons from the many community digitalization efforts and smart city endeavours around the world, with many of these insights proving remarkably consistent irrespective of location, culture, or the size and type of the community. In my book, A New Digital Deal, I have articulated a framework of 20 ‘building blocks’. Checking all 20 building blocks boxes provides the fundament to success. Failing to address a number of them reduces the odds of obtaining the outcomes a community aspires to achieve. Positively marking all 20 building blocks is a basis for success, but not a guarantee. It simply means you have a fairly complete set of ingredients to cook the meal you have in mind. Many of the building blocks are interdependent: good leadership cannot do with-out digital-ready governance, just as the Art of Connecting Everything cannot do without proper cyber security. Not paying attention to just a few of the building blocks may unravel the tapestry of the endeavour along the way. Again: comprehensiveness is key to success.

While ‘A New Digital Deal´ is rich on detail and examples, for the purposes of this blog I will be short and crisp on each building block.

  1. Leadership – digitization-ready leadership encompasses the ability to deal with sudden outcomes and disruptive innovations. Good leadership in the smart city space is not restricted to effective ‘control’ but entails comprehensive influence across a much larger ecosystem of stakeholders. Many smart city success stories have started out with visionary leadership that managed to bring the community and its many stakeholders together and induce positive action. Much of it cannot be top-down: effective smart city management often comes with great ‘servant leadership’. This of course applies to public sector leaders. Private sector leaders engaged in smart community efforts, too, need to reconsider their roles and embrace the roles and responsibilities that come with societal leadership.


  1. Governance – Digitalization is a horizontal enterprise. Connectivity, solutions, architectures, cyber security and data need to be managed comprehensively in order for a community to not end up stuck in silos and to be sufficiently future ready. Digitization does not belong (solely) to the IT manager or a single team. It affects all of the organization, all of the community, all of the municipality, all of the ecosystem. Cross vertical governance within the organization in focus is therefore imperative. Many successful smart city initiatives have started out with people and teams well mandated to operate across silos, across departments.


  1. Vision – This sounds like the easy part, but unfortunately a real vision does not equal a great PowerPoint. A real vision is rooted in a community´s real challenges and aspirations. Arriving at a genuine vision requires an iterative process of design and exchange among the community´s stakeholders.


  1. Needs, challenges and comparative advantages – an understanding of what the community actually wants and needs, yet also what its strongest assets and selling points are, constitute the right starting point for any smart community strategy. Solutionism and technology extravagances, can thus be avoided, with a successful smart community approach ending up addressing real needs while strengthening its social dynamism and enhancing its comparative advantages.


  1. Assets – too many smart initiatives start out with an insufficient inventory of existing assets that may prove relevant to the smart city endeavor, including conduits, fiber, municipal networks, light poles, street cabinets and so on. A solid, comprehensive inventory exercise may bring down costs and enhance ease of smart city project implementation.


  1. The Art of Connecting Everything – smart city efforts can only be successful if they are run on architectures that are seamless and secure. Second, they need to be sufficiently open in the sense that varying hardware and software components need to be interoperable and compliant with open industry standards in order to not get compromised by the pitfall of closed, proprietary solutions. Third, ´open´ does not have to equal ´open source´. The art of connecting everything is achieved by occasionally deriving value of what can be considered open source, without arriving at a patchwork of well-intended software constructs which, together, may prove anything but seamless or secure. Fourth, smart city architectures will need to prepare for a future where much of the data gets handled hyper-locally (for security and latency purposes). As a result, Fog and Edge (‘intelligence at the edge of the network’) computing capabilities will prove imperative. Fifth, multiple access technologies will need to be leveraged. Use cases determine what access technology will apply best, and use cases differ substantially. Some use cases may run well on a mobile network connection, others will run best on long range, low power network technologies such as LoRa for instance. Sixth, optimal smart city architectures prepare for connectivity, security, solutions and data getting managed horizontally, across silos. There is no point procuring software in isolation for one vertical solution if a horizontal platform can facilitate multiple verticals and multiple vertical solutions. In addition, the current and future value of data will be derived from a city´s capacity to open up that data and see it cross referenced rather than having it locked in silos. Last, all the above amounts to little if a sufficiently future proof broadband infrastructure is lacking. Broadband infrastructure was, is and continues to be foundational.


  1. Standards – Smart Community initiatives, architectures and solutions should adhere to open industry standards as much as possible (see previous points), set requirements on interoperability (especially if standards are lacking) and may in fact help to produce standards by the way smart city partners procure, deliver and scale.


  1. Cyber Security and Digital Resilience – with over 2.5 million cyber threats being monitored across networks across the globe every second, cyber security can never be an after-thought. Cyber security is foundational. Cyber-security should be architected into the network rather than on top of it. Cyber-security must be a care-about in early deployments, proof of concepts and pilots (and not something to enter our thinking in later stage scaled deployments only) as early designs have a nasty habit of surviving once they have been introduced. Last, we – as in society, and as in smart community stakeholders – will need to adopt a culture of resilience. No one can guarantee absolutely cyber security. Hacks will happen, your digital assets will be compromised – one has to assume as much. Comparable to the way we deal with unpredictable driving behavior of others on highways, comparable to the ways our immune systems respond to an infection, we have to take on an attitude of resilience. We may not know when the breach will happen, but we can ensure we come prepared when it does.


  1. Big Data – if early smart city initiatives focused on infrastructure, the immediate next chapter focused on smart city solutions. Following, smart community initiatives have come to be focused on data, with platform and algorithms becoming key. Smart city initiatives that are successful have typically articulated what value is to be derived from data, whether public or private, what data should be open or not, what data should be stored and which data should be erased. The management and governance of data is one of the fundamental challenges of our time. Who guards the data, who or what determines the rules on data governance and – Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? In other words, who guards the guardians?


  1. Smart Regulations – Digitalization induced change comes fast and exponential, yet our regulations are static and are often embedded in old paradigms. Amending our regulatory frameworks to govern community digitalization is imperative. On the one hand this translates into timely and incremental amendments to existing rules and regulations. On the other hand, entirely new rules and regulations often have to be forged reflecting the emergence of entirely new paradigms, business architectures and delivery models that simply did not exist a few years ago. Tackling this community digitalization building block effectively, too, requires a New Digital Deal.


  1. Ecosystem – No one can manage digitalization alone. Private sector needs government and vice versa. Big needs small and differing smart city stakeholders require a coming together. Comprehensive, open yet end to end architectures require rich and evolved ecosystems, while platform dynamics and digitalization in general thrive by delivering on ecosystem value as opposed as ‘just’ customer value. For example, a traffic data platform only becomes relevant if it involves multiple automotive companies and road authorities, while a company offering an IoT platform for cities may have its technology care-abouts in good order yet will only succeed if it has structurally involved ecosystem partners to aggregate demand, solutions and data.
  2. Business Architectures and
  3. Delivery Model – In order to keep this blog brief yet also because of their interrelatedness, I will combine these building two blocks here. Smart city propositions are moving from a hardware- and solution-driven market, to a software- and data platform-driven one, from an asset centric approach to a service centric one. Slowly but surely, community digitalization efforts are changing from having a simple transaction (say, between a municipality and a service provider) at the heart, to the smart city becoming a market place: the City as a Service is on the rise. The latter allows for the principle of ‘consumption economics’ to be introduced, with different societal stakeholders (including government and citizens) to consume ‘digital’ only as much as they need. However, we are not there yet. How the City as a Service evolves, when and with whom, will greatly depend on a number of questions and how communities address these. How virtually integrated should smart city business architectures and their delivery models be? Do we opt for private sector to own and manage top to bottom as in the old telco and cable company model, or do we stress the importance of keeping strategic assets within the public realm? Take outdoor light poles for instance: these can be considered strategic assets in the streets of a city as they evolve to become the smart phone of the street, converging power, broadband, sensors, routers and more. Who owns that asset today and who should own it tomorrow? Investors are increasingly interested in facilitating concession models financing the infrastructures of our day and age, including outdoor light pole led light retrofits, public wifi infrastructures and advanced street automation services, foregoing the need for cities to put the capex investment upfront. For cash strapped cities in dire need to reinvent themselves this may prove attractive, as much as it does for cities that really wish to procure smart city solutions as a service, much as one would procure electricity. The earlier question applies even stronger in such a model: who owns the assets and how vertically integrated or unbundled should the various layers of all of these models be? We may also want to put more thought into the creation of cooperatives and public private partnerships that help us to alternatives. We have made such choices before: think energy or broadband provisioning for instance. Think rural energy cooperatives emerging from the late New Deal programs to the ´broadband as a public platform and utility’ approaches adopted in the early 2000s in Europe, versus vertically integrated energy giants or the quintessential cable company. Similar choices are on our tables now and the stakes are high. If the choices of the past determined how we ended up organizing the energy and broadband markets for a generation or longer, the current choices may determine how we organize digitalized communities at large. Nothing could be more important.
  4. Geography of Innovation – the geography of innovation has changed, and smart city incubation efforts should reflect as much. The old nucleus of innovation has been a university campus, evolving into zones of industries, enterprise and R&D centers. Silicon Valley continues to be the quintessential example. Today´s centers of entrepreneurship and invention are hybrid and much of the action is happening in city centers. Smart city efforts should build on these dynamics, converging citizen involvement, start-up-ism, entrepreneurship, education, local, national and international talent, government, investments, and physical space.
  5. Culture of Innovation – Successful smart city efforts comprehensively embrace and encourage a culture of innovation, including the acceptance of risks and unexpected outcomes, failures, the dynamism of modern entrepreneurship as well as a mirror culture of resilience.
  6. Community Communications – Involving citizens. Bringing in people on all sides of the digital divides even in your own organization. Attracting investments. Mobilizing the required ecosystems. All the above requires well thought though communication strategies, leveraging multiple channels and platforms – workshops, social media, (V-)blog campaigns, town hall sessions, hackathons, conferences, workshops, regular media – and more.
  7. Successful innovations start and finish with good design. That ultimately sounds like a-not-so-new truism, but surprisingly many organizations give ‘design’ and the process of design thinking little thought. Good design can prevent entire digital divides from emerging. We all have a story to tell similar to this one: my mother never touched a PC in her life, but she is on Facebook today and manages her finances online because the iPad works for her, which is way more user-friendly than most PCs ever were. The difference boils down to design. Smart city projects should not begin with engineering, it should start with good service design, only then to be followed by engineering. Of course, not all innovations target a consumer type of end user. Yet many innovations are helped long-term by partners committing to in-depth design thinking from beginning to end. Good design determines adoption. But good design does not just apply to a solution, product or service. Its relevance pervasively applies to almost every other building block articulated in this framework – so much so that one could argue that it is not so much a building block but a precondition to all the other building blocks, a precondition to the framework at large. Good design lies at the heart of your governance structure. Good design is central to seamless and secure architectures. Good design determines the success of planned efforts aimed at a geography of innovation, as well as the viability of business architectures and delivery models.
  8. Skills – helping build the community of the future requires skill sets of the future. Articulating a New Digital Deal for our communities starts out with preparing our current and future work forces accordingly. Single skill jobs are losing relevance, mixed skills sets are gaining importance and EQ is what sets us apart from machines. Key skills of relevance include: an understanding of technological developments and data analytics; the social skills and emotional intelligence to thrive in collaborative environments; the ability to merge different skills. It is not math that will get you there, but math combined with social skills. Or technology married with the ability to talk business architectures and business outcomes. Or engineering skills with ethics. Convergence rules; Hybrid media literacy. Social and professional human conduct is facilitated by an ever-larger and ever more hybrid set of media; design thinking and the converged skills set typically involved in this; resilience. The ability to deal with uncertainty, respond swiftly to sudden realities, the ability to act with resilience, is an essential attitude and skill to have.
  9. Proof of Value – As we innovate, experiment, learn and evolve, we need to be able to proof value. Too many smart city initiatives commence and end with a string of pilots that fail to validate the value we hope to obtain. We often forge Proof of Concepts when, in fact, it is a Proof of Value we need. Ensuring a ´phase one deployment´ or pilot has the appropriate size and KPIs, and involves the right stakeholders for a Proof of Value to emerge is a critical building block.
  10. Proof of Values – is what we seek to build, produce, deploy or provide ethically ‘good’? Do the community digitalization efforts truly result in betterment? Are we ready for the next leap of exponential change and can society adapt socially, culturally, ethically sufficiently well? Do you know what is under the hood or are we taking innovations on interface value? These questions should not be restricted to academic debates. Instead, they should be at the heart of our smart city efforts, of our innovations, our pilots, digital designs and at the very heart of a New Digital Deal.

The framework of building blocks for successful community digitalization has been derived from the book ‘A New Digital Deal – Beyond Smart Cities. How to Best Leverage Digitalization for the Benefit of our Communities’, available on Amazon

For more about the book:


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