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Smart leadership for smart city success

Although shiny new technology can connect us and deliver data, cities won’t become smarter without smart leadership, says Jose A. LugoSantiago.

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Recently, I had a conversation at an event where we discussed the future of organisations. These are great conversations to have, as we explore trends and begin to see the gaps between present and future states. However, what usually happens is that the conversation dives into how technology is changing the way organisations are doing business.


Much of the conversation in the press tends to do the same with regards to smart cities. The conversation has a heavy bias towards technology, and it’s easy to see why – smart cities are driving innovations that are changing the way people live, work, move, interact with government and innovate. These are all good things.


We are clearly fascinated by the technology and its potential, but we must also talk more about ‘smart leadership’. Cities need to grow their smart leadership capability to make smart cities a success.


Smart city ecosystem


One reason for this is the complexity of the ecosystem within a smart city.

The exponential pace of technology growth will continue, and that has tremendous potential to affect the quality of life of citizens in cities around the world. In an article about the world’s most “future-proof cities”, the World Economic Forum described technological prowess as a key contributor to a city’s success. It also highlights that the jobs and businesses of the future will be created in cities that have an ecosystem that nurtures innovation.


This ecosystem is complex. This is the space where we begin to see the convergence between the digital and physical worlds. Some of this is seen in the use of sensors, wireless networks, cloud-based computing, and real-time data-sharing to optimise the experiences of citizens and the sustainability of city infrastructures.


Cities such as Barcelona, Chicago, Amsterdam, Singapore, Stockholm, New York and more are using information and communications technologies (ICT) to improve urban systems, advance knowledge transfer, and innovate social and digital networks. Many of these cities use alliances with research centres, public and private institutions, and social innovations to deliver smart services to citizens.

 

Wherever sustained success is achieved with smart city initiatives, it is the result of a good mix between top-down and bottom-up leadership – not just ICT.


Wherever sustained success is achieved with smart city initiatives, it is the result of a good mix between top-down and bottom-up leadership – not just ICT. In fact, renowned digital transformation expert Nagy Hanna predicts that any future benefits will require more than technology. Specifically, it will require that leaders organise, engage and experiment to unleash the potential of smart cities.

Smart city culture


The complexities of smart cities do not only extend to their ecosystems. Leaders must also be adept at developing and nurturing culture. The right culture produces and sustains the right products and services.


But what type of culture is the right one? Culture is defined by the collective beliefs, attitudes, and norms of an organisation or people. In the instance of smart cities, they collectively see themselves as hubs of innovation.


The World Economic Forum, for example, in naming the 10 most future-prepared cities, broadened the definition of a smart city to include not just the digital component, but also the areas of environmental sustainability, affordable and reliable transit, access to education, and a local economy with businesses that explore new technologies.


In another example, Amsterdam, which now considers itself to be developing Smart City 3.0, sees itself as an innovation platform for a future-proof city.

In other words, a culture of innovation remains at the core of smart cities, with the aim of improving the quality of life of its people.


Nurturing a shared culture of innovation is even more complex when you consider the growing populations of cities – the United Nations predicts that more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of the world will be living in urban areas by 2050, up from just over half (55 per cent) today. The UN also notes that today we have 33 megacities (populations of 10 million or more), and that number is expected to increase to 43 megacities by the year 2030.


Ensuring inclusion smart cities, while at the same time cultivating innovation and producing socio-economic prosperity for all, is no mean feat.


Smart leadership for a smart city


Although shiny new technology can connect us and deliver data, without smart leadership, the prospects of smart cities are greatly diminished. Smart leadership is the kind of leadership that is able to deal with the complexities of the ecosystem and the culture, in addition to being able to synchronise inputs and outputs in the smart city space to produce socio-economic benefits for all.


Smart leadership facilitates collaboration, uses strategic thinking, practices foresight activities, builds alliances and partnerships, gets out of the office and into the trenches where things are not cozy, welcomes and integrates diversity of thought, and is, foremost, a servant.


Additionally, today’s systems are too complicated to be the domain of one person. Smart leadership needs to be distributed, meaning that the leadership skills must be developed across the workforce. Smart leadership resides in the team.

 

Smart leadership resides in the team.


Additionally, just as an appointed leader takes responsibility for a work area, employees must also assume responsibility for leading vertically and horizontally.


Three areas of smart leadership


Smart leadership development skills begin in three key areas: servant leadership; the balance between innovation and sustainability; and strategic thinking and foresight. These three leadership development areas are important because they help manage complexity. For instance, research done by Dr. Y.K. Tong at the University of Singapore named enabling, sense-making, and facilitating shared leadership as behaviours as central to managing complexity.


Why servant leadership? The highest priority of the servant leader is to attend to the needs of the organisation and the needs of its people. Research on the characteristics of servant leaders highlights that servant leaders not only put followers first, but they share control with followers and embrace their growth. These leadership skills are needed in smart cities where the success and sustainability of initiatives will depend on power-sharing among a diverse set of stakeholders.


Why striking a balance between innovation and sustainability? In a smart city, these two roles can seem at odds, but they are necessary. In the famous works of Dr. Cameron and Dr. Quinn, the tendency for innovation is required for a flexible, non-hierarchical culture. This is the environment for continuous improvement, finding creative solutions, and anticipating needs.


On the other hand, cities need stability to sustain gains. Cities can achieve control and efficiency with good processes, which are necessary to sustain the coordination of resources to serve citizens.


Why strategic thinking and foresight? Strategic thinking is about the ability to understand the current business condition and link it to the conditions that caused it. This helps with managing complexity. Additionally, foresight allows smart leaders to understand the possible combinations of effects that could result from a set of actions. The practice of environmental scanning to understand trends and the use of scenario planning to imagine the future and test a set of strategies are common and very insightful methods. These develop smart leadership.


Do the work


Leadership development occurs by doing the work. And there is work for everyone. Smart cities are complex entities. Their ecosystem is complex and the culture must strike a balance between innovation and sustainability.


Smart cities will not succeed without developing smart leadership. The focus should be on developing leadership skills across networked teams. These teams should be given assignments that allow them to use their collaboration skills, strategic thinking, foresight tools, and the lessons learned from the feedback of those citizens they serve.


Developing the leadership across the teams will grow the city’s power to effectively manage complexity and promote prosperity for all.

 

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