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Scaling Pilot Projects Into Bigger Solutions: Challenges and Possible Solutions

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Scaling Pilot Projects Into Bigger Solutions: Challenges and Possible Solutions

European cities are taking several approaches to technology and innovation in order to become smart cities of the future. Analyzing the current case studies, one can start to see what does and doesn’t work when scaling pet projects and small pilots into larger solutions. Here are some insights.

Biggest Challenges with Scaling

Although smart city projects in Dublin, Bristol, Catalonia, and other areas have achieved measurable success, there have also been challenges along the way that may prevent them from scaling. This includes:

  • Culture: Smart city solutions require a change of culture within the city itself. Each unit of the city is its own silo and has its own way of doing things. There is often little interest in changing, but to become a smart city you need a new, collaborative way of thinking.
  • Fear of Change: Fear of change can be the result of culture but also because change may bring about potential negative consequences. For example, technological solutions are often faster, cheaper and more efficient than a human performing the same task. There is a fear that jobs will be lost, so trade unions may try to block projects.
  • Citizen Engagement: It is vital for citizens to be engaged in developing smart city projects. City leaders must be able to connect with citizens in order to understand their challenges and come up with technological solutions to address these challenges. Existing relationships between citizens and the government often make this difficult.
  • Budget and Costs: Technology is still expensive at this point, and meanwhile, a majority of the budget often goes to the social care of the citizens, leaving little to spare for smart cities projects.
  • Future Issues: When implementing smart city solutions, you also have to contemplate what may happen in the future and prepare for it. For example, one statistic estimates that for every one job created in the new, automated world, 20 women will lose their job versus 5 men, and the jobs that are created will be in typically male-dominated areas. If this issue is not handled properly, then we could increase the problems we already have with wage inequality. Other future issues to reflect upon including the problem of preparing our schools and training our future labor force, and ethical and moral dilemmas associated with the data revolution.

Citizen Engagement

Of the challenges listed above, one of the most crucial for scaling pilot projects is citizen engagement. City leaders agree that citizen engagement is necessary for smart city projects because these projects are not just about forcing technology and innovation on citizens, but rather using these things as tools to solve real-life problems. By talking to citizens, governments can understand what their concerns and needs are, then make sure that changes they make align with what the citizens want to see.

While citizen engagement is vital, it is also voluntary, and people vary widely in the level in which they’d like to be engaged. On the most basic level, citizens can agree to be ‘data providers.’ For example, in Catalonia, people can voluntarily download an app which allows them to send information anonymously regarding the mobile coverage in that area. This allows them to be engaged without having a large commitment or needing to stay very engaged every day.

While engagement through data is useful, many city leaders caution against blindly creating laws and solutions based on data alone. When we rely on algorithms, decisions are taken out of our hands, so we also need citizens to engage as decision-makers, actively shaping the changes they’d like to see in the cities where they live.

To that end, we are starting to see crowdfunding coming to places and cities where people don’t want to wait for the democratic process to change their neighborhood. They are motivated to make changes themselves, and crowdfunding gives them a way to fund their projects.

This may make city officials questions whether “smart city” is actually equivalent to “smart local government.” Perhaps it is time for the local authorities to get out of the way and stop trying to control and deliver the smart city to residents. Perhaps, instead, communities should be leading the way and the role of local government is to simply enable citizens to make the decisions and changes they’d like to see.


“Engagement is about understanding where the untapped value is and the innovation comes from finding a solution to that.”


Many European cities have already been tackling the challenges listed above. From their experiences, some possible solutions have been identified.

  • Forming a Smart Cities Division: Creating a separate division for smart cities planning and implementation helps to make it a priority. For example, in Bristol, the division is called the Futures in Bristol, and its goal is to make sure that the future Bristol is a sustainable, inclusive, prosperous smart city.
  • Understanding Your Starting Point: As mentioned, fear of change can stall or block smart city initiatives. It is important to know where people are coming from and why they are objecting to a proposed project. This gives you a starting point, and you can form a strategy to progress from there.
  • Integrating Stakeholders: A collaborative approach works with smart city endeavors. City administrators, universities, businesses, and even citizens themselves have to work together. This allows them to understand one another, draw out competencies, and learn via real cases.
  • Working with Trusted Intermediaries: Where it is sometimes difficult for governments to engage directly with the citizens, intermediaries can help. Intermediaries are trusted members of the community who can help broker information backward and forward between the community and the local authorities.
  • Prioritizing Smart Cities in the Budget: Budgets are tight and often if you wait until later in the budget year to ask for funding for a smart cities project, it will not be a priority. Instead, put a certain percentage away for innovative solutions at the very beginning of the budget process so there are funds for scaling. Departments will then have the money they need to innovate, and having those funds will force them to think about innovation within their unit.

In the end, many factors have to come together for scaling smart city projects to become a reality. The city must have a budget and be willing to make changes. Skilled workers must be managed as a resource by shifting people into new roles, but the people themselves also have to be willing to change. Smart city innovation requires a complete mind shift in how business is done, with the need to think collectively and systematically about how technological and data assets will be managed. Citizens must become engaged too, not just as data providers but also as active decision-makers. To become a smart city, you can’t just want to innovate – you have to take innovation seriously every step of the way.

These insights were shared at the Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator at Dublin.

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