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The Smart City Expo World Congress, held in Barcelona from November 14th to 16th this year, was a truly exciting event.  I’ve had the opportunity to attend this Expo multiple times since it first launched in 2011. What a difference 7 years makes!

I often get asked what Smart City events I would recommend, and I believe that this event captures the essence of the Smart Cities global movement.  Of course, only a fraction of cities around the global can afford to send delegates or set up pavilions, and so I hope this blog offers a glimpse into the conference for those who couldn’t directly experience the exhibits, demonstration, speakers and receptions.  Here are some observations of note:

  • The ecosystem of Smart City solution suppliers was represented. The SCEWC had 675 exhibitors, a 14% increase from 2016, 700 cities and government organizations, and over 17,000 attendees.  The vendors in attendance showed the broad ecosystem of partners needed to create Smart Cities.  This means that there were small and large companies offering a wide variety of solutions, and often with pavilions that included numerous partners.  Microsoft, MasterCard, Hexagon and Siemens are just a few names that show the breadth of offerings on display. The level of sophistication in terms of solution demo’s and displays gave the exhibit floor an incredibly high, and fun, energy.  From popcorn popping at one display to an interactive car in another to the numerous receptions made it easy to meet new people, approach exhibitors, and make connections.
  • Cities are taking a very active role in shaping the meaning of a Smart City. There was a similar broad representation from the government, or buying side, of the equation. The number of city and country pavilions showing off their solutions was much higher this year as compared to prior years. Big Smart Cities like Dubai, Istanbul, London, New York City and Moscow shared space with smaller cities, many of whom came with sponsoring countries, such as Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, China, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Holland, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and the United States.  These city-focused areas provided a unique perspective on how cities were approaching Smart City initiatives, addressing challenges, and working with partners. I listened to one panel, held in a city booth, in which several city CIOs talked quite frankly about what they were looking for in vendor partners, and how they managed to both define, fund and procure specific projects.  Another example of this can be seen in the Innovative Idea Smart City award winner, Marketplace.city.  Originally started in cooperation with New York City, Marketplace city is a platform that helps government organizations find new technology solutions and suppliers using recommendations and case studies on products and solutions from other cities. It was clear from this, and many other discussions, that cities are keen to shape the future of Smart Cities and ensure that Smart Cities are not marketing, technology, or vendor-driven but focused on providing outcomes for municipalities and their residents, businesses and visitors. 
  • There was a focus on the here and now. Oftentimes, cities can think of a Smart City as a futuristic state, using emerging technologies that are not applicable to current challenges. This was not the case in the Expo; many of the attendees were having the “light bulb moment” of understanding how exhibited solutions could help them right now, and that these newer technologies were practical, not theoretical.  A great example of this was the Microsoft exhibit on augmented reality and the use of the HoloLens. Attendees could wear the lens and see how it could help in the maintenance and repair of sophisticated equipment, providing the ability to pull up a manual, or an expert video, while in the midst of a repair. Visitors trying the lens immediately connected these capabilities to training and supporting workers in the field, reducing travel time and costs, and even mitigating some of the talent being lost to retirement and an aging workforce.  This was significant since typically augmented, virtual, and machine reality is viewed as experimental but not yet highly relevant to challenges facing cities today.
  • There is still a lot to learn. In addition to the very active exhibit hall, the speaker sessions were also on point and well-attended.  The event had eight themes – from Governance and the Economy to Sustainability, Public Safety and Mobility, and here is where much of the future of cities was discussed and debated. These talks included the technology perspective (i.e. what is the role of Blockchain? What standards do we need for digital transformation?) as well as the people and process considerations in urban areas (i.e. How do we create low-carbon settlements? How do we ensure Digital Equity?). Two areas in particular still need more attention.  The first is the idea of thinking beyond point solutions and ensuring that there is a strategy in place to connect systems and silos, and in this way, more fully realize the value of Smart City solutions.  Many of the offerings and conversations were still very focused on single use cases applicable to one department and problem area; the idea of connected IT supporting inter-connected city systems is still in its infancy.  This white paper goes into more depth on the topic. Second, the Smart City ecosystem needs more education around accessibility.  Having met with James Thurston from G3ict, and Dr. Pineda from World Enabled,  I learned that 90% of the solutions on display at the Expo were not designed to be accessible to different users, and the exhibits themselves, many with raised floors, presented access challenges. Their initiative, Smart Cities for All, is key to help all of us continue to work on accessibility.

These are just some of the highlights of a high-energy, packed week full of community catalysts who are dedicated to working together to make Smart Cities a reality.  I hope this provided a snapshot of the event and encourages more cities and vendors to consider Smart City initiatives.

About the Author

Ruthbea Yesner, Vice President, IDC Smart Cities & Government Insights

Ruthbea Yesner is the global director of the Smart Cities Strategies practice at IDC. In this practice, Ms. Yesner coordinates the Smart City team and Smart City research worldwide. Ms. Yesner’s research discusses the strategies and execution of relevant Smart City technologies and non-technology best practice areas, such as governance, innovation, partnerships and business models essential for Smart City development.  Ms. Yesner’s research includes the Internet of Things, Big data analytics, cloud computing, mobility and social media in public works, transportation, public safety, smart water, community engagement and Open Data initiatives.  Ms. Yesner’s contributes to consulting engagements to support state and local governments’ Smart City strategies and IT vendors’ overall Smart City market strategies.