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Podcast: Addressing the smart cities skills gap

Smart cities are about people – and that includes the workers required to drive the transformation. Sarah Wray examines the skills challenge facing cities.

Cities need the right people to lead their transformation – they can’t do it with technology alone. Finding the right skills and talent is a challenge for many reasons, as we explore in the first episode of our new podcast. We also look at some of the initiatives underway to tackle the issue.

 

Listen here:

 

 

Our panellists were:

  • Gunnar Crawford, Head of Stavanger Smart City
  • Raffaele Gareri, CIO and Head of Innovation, Province of Brescia & President of the Smart City Association Italy
  • Teppo Rantanen, Executive Director for Growth, Innovation and Competitiveness, City of Tampere
  • Dominic Papa, Executive Director at the Arizona Institute for Digital Progress.
  • Bas Boorsma, CEO of The Academy for Smarter Communities (TASC)

The size of the challenge: Culture or technology?

Technology is one aspect of the skills challenge but our experts don’t see it as the biggest issue.

 

The panellists highlighted technological skills gaps around data science, artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber-security. However, inseparable from these is the requirement for people who have expertise on the ethics, trust, privacy and the protection of personal data, as well as the ability to manage complex and changing relationships.

 

Bas Boorsma, TASC, said: “We see an ever-larger array of technological choices, solutions and architectures. If [these technologies] are not well understood, then it’s very difficult to procure the right [tools] to make sure that we arrive at interoperable architectures and that we make investments which are sustainable long term. There is a real need for people to up their skills and understanding with regard to technology.”

 

However, the panel agreed that new ways of thinking and approaches are just as, if not more, important.

 

Boorsma commented: “If you look at many of these smart city endeavours that we have seen over the past 10 years, much of it has been tech-driven with big technology company agendas.

 

"Why are we doing this and who for? If we start out with the citizens, that requires a different type of planning and thinking [and that’s] a very particular type of skillset.”

 

"This has increasingly resulted in a question over purpose: why are we doing this and who for? If we start out with the citizens, that requires a different type of planning and thinking [and that’s] a very particular type of skillset.”

 

Teppo Rantanen, City of Tampere, says he looks for people who can demonstrate a holistic, ’big picture’ vision.

 

“It’s really about understanding the nature of change and how to implement those changes,” he said. “The other thing is to understand the behaviour of people and how we can get our citizens to start using new technologies and see the benefit in their everyday lives.”

 

“These are the prime corporate technology skills we need right now,” he added.

 

Dominic Papa, Arizona Institute for Digital Progress, a not-for-profit which is working with 22 cities and towns to build America’s first ’smart region’, said cities are increasingly looking for “intrapreneurs” – people with entrepreneurial skills and diplomacy who can drive internal change and multi-departmental, multi-disciplinary teamwork."

 

However, he noted that the skills challenge isn’t just about the requirements of city employees.

 

“A lot of our communities want to become smart cities so that they can attract the innovative technology companies. It’s a very difficult balancing process of needing the skills internally within the city organisations but also providing the talent pipeline externally that can attract these innovative companies into our region,” he said.

 

City as orchestrator

 

Raffaele Gareri, Province of Brescia and Smart City Association Italy, has worked with a number of smaller cities, towns and villages in Italy, and they have their own unique skills requirements.

 

He explained that these places need to find the right balance between their local needs and traditions and new smart city trends and opportunities, as well as retaining talent in the community.

 

Gareri sees the role of the city as the “orchestrator” – that is, bringing together technology, finance, administration, investment and people and getting them “all moving together towards a common goal.” This includes aligning everyone to cultivate the right skills. Achieving this is one of the major challenges, he said.

 

Gunnar Crawford, City of Stavanger, points out that cities already have a lot of expertise but they need to find ways to tap into it better.

 

“We [have] a lot of silos within the municipality,” he explained. “We have maybe the best experts in the country when it comes to their own field of expertise but they’re not used to working together. So a lot of what we do with the smart city work is about enabling our colleagues in the public sector, to give them the right kind of skillset to involve our citizens and businesses in the development further.

 

"A lot of what we do with the smart city work is about enabling our colleagues in the public sector to give them the right kind of skillset to involve our citizens and businesses in the development further."

Addressing the skills challenge

 

Cities are already taking steps to address the growing skills challenge.

 

For instance, Stavanger is working with 25 other municipalities in the region to create “internal schools” to train staff in the new approaches required, such as design thinking. A centralised team of experts is working across the cities.

 

Crawford says the initiative is already delivering results.

 

“We see in several fields that people are working differently,” Crawford commented. “They are so much more open to new ideas. Also, now we are much more willing to sit down [with businesses] and have at least initial talks without having a big procurement process. It’s the same with the citizens – [staff are] much more open to walking out into the street and asking the citizens what they need. So it’s so much more needs driven.”

 

Strength in numbers

 

As Crawford noted, more cities are starting to take a regional approach to boost their collective power. Another example of this is the Greater Phoenix Smart Region Consortium, which was recently launched.

 

“The Greater Phoenix Region is the fourth largest county in the country [with the] the fastest growing population for the last three years,” Papa said. “We have 22 large jurisdictions, all slammed up right next to each other. We realised that each of the cities was going about their smart city strategies in a siloed way. We were essentially creating a handful of smart city islands."

 

"We realised that each of the cities was going about their smart city strategies in a siloed way. We were essentially creating a handful of smart city islands."

 

The consortium is a collaborative research and implementation partnership between the public sector, academia, industry and other civic institutions to drive the creation, advancement and adoption of smart city technologies at scale. A major pillar of the consortium is its workforce development programmes.

 

Last year, the consortium launched the Public Entrepreneur Development Academy (PEDA).

 

"It’s a first-of-its-kind accelerator that teaches government employees entrepreneurial problem-solving skillsets and how to apply them to real-world civic issues," Papa said. "We see it as a new model for government problem-solving and leadership development."

 

Papa says the programme is already changing the way city employees do things.

 

He said: “For instance, the director of public works [in the City of Phoenix] has already started to mandate that employees attend design thinking webinars online."

 

Education, education, education

 

Another tactic is for cities to build their talent pipeline early. The City of Tampere is working closely with a local university to develop a new Master’s programme related to smart cities. A lot of the learning would be hands-on through working with local companies and the city.

 

Rantanen said: “It will be a very pragmatic learning module which will support building skills that we need in the smart city environment. I think this could be a totally new way of building skilled talent around smart city thinking. It’s also good for our ecosystem partners to recruit from.”

 

Meanwhile, TASC delivers masterclasses to public sector leaders. Its ‘anchor’ cities include Amsterdam, Reykjavik, Dubai, Kansas and Copenhagen, as well as those featured in this article and podcast. TASC delivers its masterclasses in anchor cities and tailors the content to the city’s needs.

 

Boorsma says the classes focus on the “critical building blocks” required to drive smart city innovation.

 

He explained: “[We look at] what are the inter-dependencies between those? What happens if you do not commit to any of those building blocks? How can things fall apart and what are the most common pitfalls?"

 

“I think it’s very important that education in this space doesn’t just focus on technology."

 

“I think it’s very important that education in this space doesn’t just focus on technology [although] obviously technology does have an important role to play and it should be made part of the education. That includes hardware, data strategies, architecture and so on but also how to effectively engage citizens and procure for innovation,” he added.

 

Boorsma urges cities to approach education in a more strategic way. He notes if they just send staff to a few conferences or small workshops: “You’re simply going to have to keep working with too many people that are under informed and under-skilled. It can at best result in some progress but then you’ll get stuck in incrementalism. You see that a lot – you need larger things with different decision-makers on board on equal levels of skills and competency.

 

“Taking on that mission of getting education organised is an absolute priority for every community, large or small.”

 

Can cities compete with the private sector?

 

Another challenge cities face is competing with private sector wages and benefits.

 

Crawford said: “[We have been] having a hard time recruiting because of Norway’s oil and gas industry, which is on its way back up and they’re grabbing all the really skilled workers at the moment.”

 

He believes having the expert skills team working across the region could give Stavanger and the other municipalities a competitive advantage.

 

Papa is also noticing a change in this area, although the challenge remains acute. He said: We’re seeing a bit of shift where a lot of the individuals in the emerging workforce straight out of college and university are motivated to drive a positive change within the communities and to have an impact within the broader society.

 

“I think that is where governments will really be successful in competing in talent recruitment.

 

"Yes, a lot of these tech companies can offer higher-paying jobs but [promoting] the ability to create a positive impact will help us attract the kind of talent we need to drive this change.”

 

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