Q&A: BearingPoint Partner Jean-Michel Huet on what makes a city truly 'smart'

An aerial view of the Nouakchott smart city project in Mauritania. Photo by: BearingPoint

“Smart city” has become a buzzword among urban planners and other stakeholders concerned with effectively addressing the challenges of rapid urban growth in the “global south.” But what makes a city truly smart?

“A digital ecosystem within the city that enhances its liveability, workability and sustainability, offering a space to develop innovative businesses and entrepreneurial activity in the digital arena,” said Jean-Michel Huet, partner at BearingPoint, a consulting firm that has provided smart city strategy in a wide range of contexts — from the Nouakchott smart city project in Mauritania, to Brazzaville Smart City in the Republic of the Congo, to Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom.

But of equal importance is that smart cities are built upon sustainable energy infrastructure, while also providing health care — a crucial issue in emerging countries.

"[A smart city is an] ecosystem that brings together all its stakeholders — citizens, businesses, public administrations — in order to create synergies and respond to the needs of each in an efficient and responsible manner,” Huet said.

So how can we ensure that cities are not just smart, but also sustainable in the long run — both in terms of economic and population growth?        

Devex spoke to Huet to learn what it takes to build connected, financially sustainable smart cities in the global south, the biggest challenges to smart city implementation, and the most effective strategies to overcome them.

Here are some highlights from that conversation, edited for clarity and length.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced when trying to implement projects and plans for a smart city in the global south?

First, rapidly growing cities present challenges to policymakers, particularly in the context of the global south where the typical problems associated with urbanization — overcrowding, access to public services, jobs, and crime — are even more severe.

Technology is playing a leading role in building cities that can cope with growing numbers of inhabitants. A solution to this challenge is to create “technopoles” — technological hubs that nurture innovative businesses, create employment, encourage education and training and provide a showcase for a country’s strengths. Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have already developed pioneering technopoles, allowing for the establishment of innovative businesses that bring many thousands of jobs, and integrate IT into economies.

The next step from the technopole is the smart city, which are fully connected and use technology to analyze citizen data, which, in turn, enables improvements to infrastructure to better provide what inhabitants need: education, health care, employment and transport.

What are the most important factors that determine whether implementation will be successful or not?

I think there are five primary factors that need to succeed in a smart city project.

First, it’s necessary to clearly define the purpose of the smart city and obtain alignment and support with the city’s constituency and key stakeholders. Along this same line, it’s critical to clarify its commercial and environmental sustainability objectives, which will inform the design and implementation of all smart city initiatives — universities, R&D, technologies and businesses, for example.

The second key factor is to anticipate the future business model and the ecosystem of smart city implementing partners. To do this, one needs to show the value created by smart cities through economic modeling and begin to think about what financial model might be the most effective.

Next, smart cities need an effective digital platform. We’re not talking about traditional IT solutions — that simply won’t cut it — but a scalable platform that allows cities to collaborate with partners and embrace future technology. The best solutions allow for agility, empowering smart city leaders to act fast, be adaptable, and be open to change while maintaining trust with citizens.

Smart city leaders should also identify some quick wins to solve short-term problems — for example, experimenting with simple service bundles — even as they are planning for longer term growth, which helps to build confidence and momentum around the smart city agenda.

Finally, we need to come up with better solutions for rural areas. For the smart city vision to become a reality, global south leaders need to explore how to build upon the fabric of technopoles.

However, none of this is to say that smart cities are the whole answer to future development. It’s also important to think through the issue of how to integrate the smart city project in national development plans, while keeping with the state’s regional and global economic strategy.

What does it mean to “monetize” smart city services and why is this important?

Monetizing smart city services is necessary in order for there to be a sustainable business model. Smart city leaders could decide that some services are free of charge for citizens, while others could be paid to the authority or to private companies — as a way to attract them to invest in the smart city.

In terms of the revenue model driving this monetization, let’s take the example of Milton Keynes, the U.K.’s fastest-growing city, and a good example of successful IT and business development for a smart city. With [the U.K. telecoms provider] BT, we built the data hub — and through APIs and developer tools, the opportunity to build a commercial ecosystem. This is a clear business model for a sustainable city growth, and provides easy access to information and services, easy monetization of those services, improves the quality of public services, and reduces energy and water use.

Users are billed for services through combination of data, applications and related services consumed in the context of the complex smart city ecosystem; in that same way, data providers are able to sell the use of their data for multiple purposes, with BT acting as the ecosystem’s aggregator. This approach enables Milton Keynes’s growth, by making land available for development, and reducing pollution and congestion.

How could this be applied to other contexts?  

A city like Milton Keynes has many sources of live data — from sensors on car parking meters, to the monitoring of congestion, and energy and water use. Other data sources include property, satellite imagery, population density, and crime statistics. All this data is converted into useable information — while ensuring appropriate privacy. One monetization opportunity is to make this data and information available online through a commercial digital platform, which allows developers and companies easy access to data for a fee. This kind of model could be easily performed in the global south. This is also a way to develop public services but also private financing through a sustainable business model.

Over six weeks, Devex — along with our partners Agence Française de Développement, BearingPoint, UN-Habitat, and XII Metropolis World Congress — will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Malia Politzer

    Malia Politzer is an award-winning long-form journalist who specializes in international development, human rights issues and investigative reporting. She recently completed a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs in India and Spain. For three years, she worked as a feature-writer at Mint, India’s second-largest financial newspaper, where she wrote about international development, strategic philanthropy and impact investing. She holds an M.S. journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Fellow for Investigative Journalism, and a B.A. from Hampshire College.