By 2021, spending on smart city technology is expected to reach $135 billion. But a truly ‘smart’ city needs more than connected street signs, self-driving cars, smart parking meters and hyperloops to thrive.

Although such technologies promise to streamline transportation, enhance public safety and improve sustainability, they are simply that – technologies. At the root of the most successful, sustainable smart cities must be an atmosphere of collaborative innovation, or “co-innovation”, involving its most valuable resource: people.

To inspire your city’s people to bring forward new ideas for solving age-old challenges, you’ll need a base camp of sorts – a centralised hub where tech experts, government officials, academics, students, startups and more can come together to incubate scalable solutions. In other words, you’ll need a centre of innovation.

The concept of innovation centres is spreading fast and you’ll find hundreds of these hubs around the world, from New York’s Center for Discovery, to Durham, North Carolina’s American Underground start-up hub, to the UK’s IDEALondon.

However, ensuring these centres’ co-innovation efforts deliver scalable digital solutions that put your smart city on the map requires some careful planning. Whether you’re a tech company or startup looking to make your local footprint, a municipality or government planning for the next wave of digital transformation in your city, or even a university or college trying to get your students more involved in their community, consider the following elements when setting up your innovation centre.

Location, location, location

From my experience, setting up and operating more than a dozen innovation centres worldwide, the city, district, region and even street you select for your innovation centre will set the stage for future growth.

However, don’t necessarily base your decision on city size or popularity. Rather, choose a city with a proven entrepreneurial base, a blend of both startups and established businesses, academic institutions and local government leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to invest in the community.

For example, cities that have previously hosted – or are preparing to host – the Olympic Games make great homes for innovation centres. These cities have already invested in infrastructure, technologies and services to host the world’s largest events and are equipped to grow smart city services in a big way.

In fact, leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics, the city of Rio de Janeiro partnered with enterprise technology companies to deploy a city-wide Internet of Things (IoT) platform that enabled smart city services for the many visitors. Long after the games finished and the stadiums emptied, the technology remains, continuing to provide services to local citizens and a foundation for dozens of local startups and developers to build upon.

Similarly, choose a city or area whose digital, economic, industrial and social priorities align with your innovation centre’s goals. Which vertical industries – such as security, manufacturing, transportation, healthcare or energy – are prominent in the region? Many of these complement one another, so it’s always good to aim for a repeatable process so your innovation centre can co-innovate solutions that can be replicated across different industries and even around the globe.

People, partners and ecosystems

Location is important, but it’s the people who make it work. As mentioned, innovation isn’t just technology or services; it’s a state of mind, involving people, their ideas, their experiences and their passions.

For example, a local government could introduce smart streetlights to improve energy efficiency, but that alone will not make it a smart city. To be truly innovative, the city should allow developers, startups and other organisations to access the data from the streetlights to build additional, complementary applications and services.

Cities such as San Diego have done this, with local government, enterprise organisations and startups coming together to develop applications that use the smart streetlights to monitor air pollution, listen for broken glass or car crashes, and even help manage traffic congestion. To build a truly smart city, it takes businesses, municipalities and citizens collaborating to instil a city-wide culture of innovation, as well as implement the underlying, 21st-century network infrastructure to support all the emerging, innovative IoT connections.

As these individuals come together, you’ll see a diverse ecosystem forming. The most successful innovation centres are filled with a blend of customers, partners, government, academics, startups and enterprises across multiple industries. With subject matter experts sharing insights from every walk of life, these individuals and teams can brainstorm, exchange best practices and co-innovate in ways that benefit not only their individual communities, but can also be utilised far and wide. In other words, the best ideas and ‘light-bulb’ moments come when a group of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences come together to create magic.

The network multiplier effect

Once you have established your innovation centre with the right blend of people and technologies, don’t stop there. Set your sights on where you might be able to set up a second and third hub, and beyond, and begin interconnecting them as a network.

Although your innovation centre may be focused on solving a local problem (like reducing traffic or air pollution), other cities, regions and even countries are facing the same challenges. When multiple hubs are co-innovating to solve local problems, it is easier to share ideas and best practices, allowing solutions to be scaled globally to create exponential social and economic value. The greater the network, the greater the value to all participants – hence, the network multiplier effect.

When multiple hubs are co-innovating to solve local problems, it is easier to share ideas and best practices, allowing solutions to be scaled globally.

A great example of this phenomenon comes from the Mi-IDEA co-innovation centre in Manchester, England. Working with a robust ecosystem of 21 partners from local startups, universities, government research institutions and leading technology companies, Mi-IDEA has launched CityVerve.

A smart city demonstrator, CityVerve is exploring the use of Internet-enabled technologies across Manchester to improve transportation, air quality, energy efficiency and the delivery of healthcare services. These homegrown solutions are now serving as a blueprint for smart cities worldwide through collaboration with other innovation centres and their ecosystems around the world.

As the old saying goes: “It takes a village.” In the age of smart cities, this adage could not be truer.

Indeed, the ‘smartest’ of cities needs to roll out more than just cutting-edge technologies and services – they need a growing community of inspired people to help bring to life scalable solutions for today’s problems. By establishing a fertile environment where innovation centres bring together the brightest minds to co-innovate and scale their solutions, cities can create lasting legacies of innovation that help communities thrive for generations to come.

This article first appeared in Smart Cities World.

Meanwhile, if you have questions, get stuck, or need an innovation therapist, don’t hesitate to contact me:




Alex Goryachev

Senior Director, Innovation Strategy & Programs

Corporate Strategic Innovation Group