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Ten Commandments for a Digital City

Global Insight by Robert Muggah and Carlo Ratti
AI tech city landscape.

The digital revolution is rapidly transforming cities, and a new vision and set of protocols is needed for them to leverage the promises of connectivity.

Cities are facing a radically different future than the present. Many are also struggling to catch up with the changes in the recent past. The digital revolution—from automation to artificial intelligence—is rapidly transforming the rhythms of urban life. Digital connectivity is opening-up unprecedented opportunities, triggering new risks, and imposing new responsibilities—from regulating tech startups to safeguarding utilities and services from ransomware.

Keeping pace with a digitally transforming world requires fundamentally reimagining how cities are designed and run. It is not enough to simply add on new layers of technology and pray for the best. What is required is a new vision and protocols—a covenant—to help cities take advantage of the promise of ubiquitous connectivity. We climbed our own digital Mount Sinai to reveal 10 tablets with commandments to help municipal leaders to navigate the digital age. 

1. Thou shalt make unto thee digital governmental structures

Cities should actively shape digital transformation rather than be passively subjected to it. The goal is not to apply new technology layers. Rather, cities should create a vision and framework that is values-based and focused on the wellbeing of people. The most successful visions are focused squarely on clear goals and solving practical problems. Amsterdam, for example, is focused squarely on fostering freedom, safety, inclusivity, and creativity. While the vision is long term, local authorities are also delivering “small wins” that can be communicated to the city council and wider public.

Cities like BarcelonaHelsinki, Los Angeles, and Singapore created dedicated departments precisely to advance digital transformation. In the process, they defined leadership functions, forged technology integration strategies, and developed capabilities to integrate digital systems across the city. Some cities have created specialized programs—such as innovation teams and digital foundations—precisely to accelerate testing and adoption of new technologies.

Meanwhile, cities are standing-up digital services—from connected street lighting and waste removal to urban traffic management and street cleaning—operating them on their own or with a third party. Cities are also launching dedicated resident platforms that process real-time requests, including from smart phones and other digital devices. By improving efficiencies and calibrating electricity and fuel use, cities are more effectively reducing their environmental footprints. Savings can then be reinvested in new services feeding a virtuous cycle.

Sustained city leadership is essential to maintain momentum for digital transformation. In some cases, mayors and deputy mayors may champion the process, helping to provide the right mindset, cultural change, and allocation of resources. Highly trained chief digital officers or technology officers are being mobilized to manage the governance structure, drive cross-agency innovation, upgrade digital skills, forge strategic partnerships and mobilize financing. They tend to achieve more success when reporting directly to the city council, with a position similar to that of auditor general.

2. Thou shalt promote digital literacy

All employees in a city's digital department, indeed across all verticals, require basic training and skills. This means closing the “experience gap” between city personnel and digital service providers. Every middle manager should be trained in the fundamentals of big data, machine learning, and AI. Cities like Helsinki built on this model, developing a “Data Science Certificate” program in partnership with local universities and teaching basic programing in Python and principles and ethics of AI.

For digital transformation to be genuinely effective it requires a digitally literate population. Cities are becoming more proactive about enhancing digital literacy. Some are creating online portals for lifelong learning or specialized training courses to stimulate the digital economy. Others are developing specialized centers that provide on-site counseling and training, as well as specialized teams visiting under-serviced areas to identify practical ways to bridge digital divides. 

3. Thou shalt not make any graven image and worship the false idol of techno-optimization

The promise of digital technology to build greener, more inclusive, and prosperous cities is real, even if techno-optimism is increasingly unfashionable. But urban leaders who mindlessly put their faith in the latest flashy technology and overuse buzzwords like “data-driven” and “smart” are likely to lose support from the faithful.

Cities cannot be optimized like a machine; their first and most fundamental ingredient is its population made up of emotional, irrational people. Rather than using digital tools to make the city smart, which sometimes carries the connotation of out-smarting the population, their goal should be to make it sensible—to understand them.

4. Thou shall lay down digital infrastructure

There are many widely shared priorities associated with building digital infrastructure. A central one is connectivity, including fixed broadband, mobile broadband, low power wide area networks and high-performance computing outlays. Another is data and analytics, including connected sensors, open data systems, streamlined data collection, storage and access procedures, analytical platforms to inform decision-making, and digital modeling and simulation tools to test out solutions.

Dedicated support for digital services is also essential, including creating single point of entry portals with search functions, online authentication for citizens and business, as well as virtual communication and collaboration processes and tools. A final priority relates to designing for accessibility and inclusion, including the provision of end-user devices for at-risk groups and digital training for excluded residents.

5. Thou shall not needlessly fall victim to hackers

At a minimum, digitally transforming cities need to prioritize security at the edge, including safe handling, storage, and sharing of citizens’ data. This includes designing data privacy safeguards to maintain trust. One way to do this is by applying security-by-design principles, accountability procedures and enhanced threat monitoring. Cities can also prioritize the routine backing up of data to build resilience to hacking and theft. Critical data should also be compartmentalized to make it more difficult for ransom attackers to encrypt it.

Cities and other government authorities are increasingly introducing and mandating requiring minimum security standards in digital devices. Some like Los Angeles are creating nudge strategies to encourage digital hygiene, and proactively educate city personnel and residents about best practices as they evolve. In a digitally transforming and geopolitically volatile world, all city actors—public agencies, local businesses, civic organizations, and residents—need good cyber-security hygiene.

6. Thou shalt establish diverse partnerships befitting the scope of the digital world

Digital transformation depends on the creation of strategic partnerships to reduce costs, maximize use, and ensure sustainability. Partnerships can take multiple forms. One approach involves joint and majority-owned ventures where cities and partners create a new company in which each has a stake. These can entail common platform partnerships in which cities adopt a partner’s platform to improve efficiencies and monetize data or sector-specific partnerships in which cities offer new previously none-offered services with potential to generate new revenue streams.

Other kinds of partnerships may involve pooled resources and capabilities, in which the city gains access to market innovation and the partner accesses a broader market by establishing economies of scale and personalized offerings. Public-private partnerships can generate much needed investment, risk sharing, and expertise that cities often lack. But to be successful, it is critical to engage early with a wide group of stakeholder groups to secure buy-in.

Around the world, cities are expected to do more with less. Cities need to become more efficient and effective at a time of rising deficits, debt, and liabilities. What this means is that cities often have less public funding and need to become more creative about resourcing digital transformation. In 2020, some 60 percent of smart city funding was from national and subnational funding and grants and approximately 26 percent from municipal budgets themselves. Less than 14 percent came from public private partnerships or franchise and revenue sharing models with vendors.

City programs and projects can be financed through funding, debt, and equity or some combination between them. Since different investors apply different financial assessment criteria, decisions on financing options inevitably depend on the nature of the intervention.

As such, it is important for cities to set up and structure a pipeline of projects that fits the intended funding requirements including in relation to investment horizons and risk profiles. Another approach to reducing the strain on public budgets involves vendor financing where the supplier fully finances projects upfront and is paid back over a longer period.

7. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s data

City governments have fast evolved into repositories of much-coveted data about every dimension of urban life. This is a scarce resource, but it is best used when not hoarded or sold, but freely shared. Open datasets, best exemplified by London’s extraordinary repository of available information, attract universities, startups, and citizens to carry out research and experiments that can transform a city’s life. As private companies race to use their proprietary information to leapfrog one another in the AI race, cities can show another way: the power of open sharing.

8. Do unto the citizens as the citizens would do unto you (feedback loops)

Perhaps the most powerful application of digital technology in cities is that it allows governments to be in touch with citizens. Traditional forms of feedback, elections, and public meetings are necessary but infrequent compared to the instant response cities can get from using digital technologies to assess the impact of their policy decisions. Comment sections are problematic to say the least, but forms of digital democracy—like participatory budgeting—could be invaluable.

We will soon live in a world where visual AI can ascertain the effectiveness of a new bench or water fountain; the city that gets there first will reap extraordinary rewards. The important part of feedback loop-type operation isn’t just collecting the data; it’s responding to it. The idea of constant adjustments in response to feedback is not how much urban governance works today; it will require a change in mindset. Yet once closed, the feedback loop puts the city on a path to constant iteration and rapid evolution.

9. Thou shalt foster innovation with startups and universities

The handmaids of the digital revolution are universities and irreverent startups. Cities need to tap both for their innovation. Some already are. Post-industrial cities such as Pittsburgh have experienced a revival with support from academic institutions. So-called innovation districts in are spreading from Barcelona and Berlin to Baltimore and Boston. There, leading-edge anchor institutions such as universities are working with start-ups, incubators, and accelerators to co-invent and co-produce discoveries for the market. These innovation ecosystems bring together educational institutions, entrepreneurs, and mixed-use spaces to drive idea generation and accelerate commercialization. 

10. Thou shalt remember the physical world, and keep it sacred

We often think about the arrival of digital technologies to augment and improve the physical city. Yet the lesson of the last decade is that we also need to think the other way around. The physical city can serve as an antidote to digital disconnection; it carries an inevitability of encounter that circumvents the polarization and isolation of our algorithmically filtered social media feeds. The digital world doesn’t make the in-person city less necessary; it makes it more vital than ever.

About the Authors
Robert Muggah
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Global Cities
Robert Muggah headshot
Robert Muggah is a specialist in cities, security, migration, and new technologies. He is principal of SecDev, a cyber security and digital resilience company. He also co-founded the Igarapé Institute—an independent think and do tank devoted to data-driven citizen, digital and climate security across Latin America and Africa. In addition to serving as a nonresident senior fellow at the Council, Muggah is a fellow or faculty at six other institutions. He is the author of eight books, most recently Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years (Penguin/Random House) and received his DPhil from the University of Oxford.
Robert Muggah headshot
Carlo Ratti
Director, SENSEable City Lab, MIT Urban Planning
Carlo Ratti is an architect and engineer by training and teaches at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. He is also a founding partner of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati. His work has been exhibited in several venues worldwide, including the Venice Biennale, New York’s MoMA, London’s Science Museum, and Barcelona’s Design Museum.