How can cities really become smart?

Five weeks ago, Swisscom and IMD business school have jointly published a study called “Smart City: Essentials for City Leaders”, which aims at helping cities to become smart. This blog post presents some of the study’s findings, some next steps following the publication and how the main author ended up being the responsible person for the research.

Five weeks ago, Swisscom and IMD business school have jointly published a study called “Smart City: Essentials for City Leaders”, which aims at helping cities to become smart. As lead researcher of the paper, I would like to present you in this blog post some of the study’s findings, some next steps following the publication and how I ended up being the responsible person for the research.


Study findings

Talking about Smart City, unfortunately, not everyone has the same viewpoint of what a Smart City is. For instance, several of our twenty-five interviewees, with each of them we have conducted a one hour interview for our research, have given different answers when we asked them about their understanding of the term Smart City. The reason for this is that there is no official definition that has been agreed upon generally what a Smart City is. This leads to the fact that everyone has its own idea. In addition, because the concept of Smart City is very vague and spongy, there are a ton of different ideas present that sometimes have very little in common with each other.

In order to step into this gap and render the concept more comprehensible, we present a practical and concise definition of the term in our paper: For us, a Smart City is a city that has improved its own city services with the help of digital technologies, or even has created new ones. City services for us are services that are offered to its citizens and businesses, such as lighting, traffic, waste or parking management. Actually, most of a city’s activities can be subsumed as a city service if you adhere to this definition.

A practical example of an improved city service with the help of digital technologies can be waste management. Today, public trash bins in cities usually are emptied on the basis of a predefined tour. This tour normally has been set according to the experience of the city workers who are in charge of emptying the bins. The problem with that procedure is that about one third of the trash bins are emptied too early, when they are still empty, about one third is emptied too late, when they are full and only one third is emptied at the right time (Source: Gfeller Informatik Ltd, It is obvious that there is clearly some room for improvement by making a city’s waste management intelligent with the help of digital technology.

To help cities in turning their city services “smart”, we have created the Smart City Piano. The Smart City Piano consists of seven distinct “keys” that define a city’s transformation needs. Further, we have grouped those seven keys into three different “chords” that logically follow each other.

Let me explain the Smart City Piano in detail with the help of the smart waste management example that I gave before.

As a first step if a city wants to put in place a smart waste management, a city has to assess a project’s potential, for which it has to analyze the technology/infrastructure it wants to use and the business case. In the technology/infrastructure key, what we normally see is if a city wants to make its waste management smart, is that it mounts small boxes packed with either infra-red or ultrasonic sensors in its trash bins, which measure the fill level of the bins. Those sensor boxes then communicate the fill level to a central trash management system through the help of a Low Power Network or a GSM connection. Thanks to the aggregated data, a city gets a complete overview of the fill level of each trash bin, allowing the city to plan the routes to empty the trash bins according to real data. Because a city can empty its trash bins more efficiently now, this will have an impact on the business case that has to be analyzed as a next step. A city has to identify the return on investment of the project and has to get to know whether it is able to finance the project.

In the next chord, cities have to prepare the groundwork for putting the project in place. Cities need to make sure that they have the backup of the politics. Not every politician might like that you make the trash management intelligent depending on his agenda. Similarly, regulations might pose a problem too, for instance laws might exist that obliges a city to empty its trash bins on a regular basis, which then interferes with the new emptying system based on fill level data.

In the last chord, cities have to manage the execution of the Smart City project. Cities first should think about the governance and organizational structure they want to put in place. Should they form a project team? Where in the city organization should they put the team? Once a city knows how to set up its organizational structure, a city has to think about the people skills it needs to put the project in place. Finally, cities have to think about soft and cultural factors that might affect a project too. Resistance of city employees against a change of their work tasks might be one example of this key.

Finally, after having analyzed the seven keys in the three chords, a city should be able

  • to estimate the feasibility of a specific project
  • to know where the pitfalls of a specific project are
  • to have identified in which of the seven keys it needs to transform itself in order that the implementation of a specific project turns out as a success.


Next steps following the publication

As a next step following the publication, we are now testing the Smart City Piano at Aigle Région at the instigation of the Ecovillages association. This should result in the emergence and implementation of innovative smart city projects focused on tourism, transport and energy. Further, we have planned to publish a second paper on how city leaders can start their cities on the Smart City journey, enabling them to identify Smart City projects, assess the feasibility of each project and the orchestration of multiple Smart City projects, which is planned to be published by the end of 2016.


How did I end up being the lead researcher?

Initially, I have started working for Swisscom as an intern in November 2014 in the enterprise management consulting team right after finishing my master in business management at HEC Lausanne. In summer 2015 still being an intern, my boss Blaise Vonlanthen was evaluating focus topics for our consulting team that are worth building up expertise, preferably together with a well-reputed research institution. It soon became clear that IMD would be the perfect institution to work together in the field of Smart City. He then proposed me to work as an external research associate at IMD and being the main responsible for the research, what I accepted highly motivated.

It speaks for Swisscom and its culture, giving so much responsibility to an intern. During my internship, I never had to experience a negative reaction based on my intern status, on the contrary, I always had the impression that my input and know-how is appreciated equally like a full time employee. On these grounds, when I was hired as full time management consultant in the middle of the research project, the only change that happened regarding my work was the job title.

Study: “Smart City: Essentials for City Leaders”
Press release following the study publication