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The role of government in innovation and smart city planning

Who is going to make innovation happen? Governments or the private sector? Gabe Batstone, CEO, Contextere, an industrial AI company focused on human performance, takes a look.


Smart cities are often classified as urban spaces equipped with high-tech sensors to monitor and manage energy and resource usage in an efficient manner.


The data collected via these physical IoT devices and sensors is used to optimise city operations and services and connect with citizens in a more efficient manner.


Smart city development often requires involvement of a government body to make deliberate choices and engage in city challenges in the most effective way. This results in a combination of different political and technical roles, well beyond simply the implementation of the latest technology advancements.

Three Ts

When we consider the role of governments in innovation and smart city planning, there are many factors, but the top three fall into the following buckets: technology, talent and trade.

Technology provides the foundation for digital and traditional companies to grow and engage in smart city development. Trade provides the markets, supply chains and resources required to grow rapidly in a locally and globally connected marketplace. However, it’s important to remember, the first two (technology and trade) are irrelevant if you do not have a team of experts to solve problems, define value propositions and create intellectual property (IP).


In the digital economy we are more often than not paying people for what is between their ears, not simply what they do with their hands.


From a technology perspective, governments can ensure an underlying, connected infrastructure exists for both large and small business to build upon. In today’s world, this starts with reliable network connections and a streamlined method for communications across offices, cities, states and borders.

I would argue that any city or state committed to smart city development, technology innovation and equal opportunity for its citizens should provide the infrastructure for high-speed and high-bandwidth internet access and cellular networks.

This communications infrastructure needs to exist within the education system as well, particularly at university and polytechnic colleges, which are the gateways for tomorrow’s talent and digital workforce.


Once the right technology and communications infrastructure is in place, the market and smart city development can blossom. Economic growth is tied to strong exports, increasing the total attainable market and global supply chains available. Much of this falls into the purview of federal and state governments. However, in today’s economic climate it would be very risky for city governments to play a back-seat role.

On the flip side, too often this point is overlooked by startups and small businesses. There is an opportunity for government to educate young companies and entrepreneurs on the benefit of establishing strong trade relations that go beyond a press release or trade mission.


Talent is arguably the most important driver of innovation. It starts with transforming the educational system so the children of today are developing the skills of tomorrow. Not only will this provide the talent pool for tomorrow’s workforce, but will also ensure children are developing the right skills to leverage their natural curiosity, creativity and empathy.

Governments can also focus on enabling technical training and labour mobility. Polytechnics institutions are well positioned to help bridge the skills gap, while active recruitment of high-calibre, educated workers can take labour mobility to the next level.

This is a “must have” in today’s global market. The reality is even a high-performing economy cannot source all the workers required to scale to this next level; the search must expand beyond borders. The soft benefits of new ideas, different experiences and simply a different way of looking at the world far exceed simply meeting the labour demands.

The reality

Despite the impact government can have on technology, talent and smart city planning, businesses are ultimately accountable for training their employees, developing technology and opening markets, in the process of driving results for their stakeholders. The reality is the only time government “creates” jobs is when they hire government employees (the whole process would go smoother if we all accepted that fact). Needless to say, the corporate sector’s job becomes infinitely easier when governments provide a solid technical, trade, and talent foundation for innovation to flourish.

Governments can have a substantive impact on stimulating innovation even though the private sector owns the responsibility. The ‘future of work’ will be defined by the employers and employees of today. If governments provide a well-connected environment where businesses can flourish, there is a huge opportunity to harness the power of technology to service human creativity, empathy and judgement.


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