Smart Cities Need Smart Mayors

In the past two weeks, I’ve spent time with both Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner discussing the role of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship in their cities. Both of them want to make sure their cities can leverage tech to stay competitive for talent, outside investment, and are also eager to help keep building local innovation ecosystems. They want inclusive, responsible growth.

While technology plays an integral role in what we define as “Smart Cities,” city officials must understand how to align the needs of citizens with the technologies they’re considering.  That’s one of the reasons Techonomy hosted a conference in Detroit for four years. We had the opportunity to spend extensive time with city and state officials, who not only looked to technology to enhance infrastructure and services in one of America’s great cities, but also to address larger objectives: attracting entrepreneurs, reskilling the workforce, and stimulating new investment to drive economic development.

Houston is the 4th largest city in the United States (with 2.3 million people), with a diverse, dynamic economy. Cleveland is the 52th (with about 383,000 people). But the two mayors of these dramatically different cities both were similarly thoughtful. They want investment into tech both to position their city for the future—and, at the same time, serve immediate community needs.

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Cities need to harness tech for critical services like public safety or public Wi-Fi. But significant investment into things like cameras or connected streetlights requires both an understanding of the long-term viability of both the technology and of the vendor who will provide installation and ongoing support. Replacing a light bulb in a streetlight, for example, has been a fairly standard government function for decades. But smart streetlights can bring benefits like reduced energy consumption, automatic alerts about operational problems, and can make it possible to provide public Wi-Fi. But as such technology continues to evolve, how does a city future-proof itself, as well as insure the provider will be able to support this complex system for the foreseeable future?

In Detroit, we saw a vibrant start-up community primarily supporting the auto industry. Cleveland, by contrast, has med-tech start-ups that collaborate with Cleveland Clinic. And Houston has numerous early stage companies servicing the energy sector. As entrepreneurs choose the cities where they’ll launch their companies, they’re thinking about quality of life as well as access to talent, capital, and clients. Being a successful home for an entrepreneurial ecosystem is much more likely if you’re already a great, vibrant, and deeply connected city.

In 2020, Techonomy plans to bring back what we started in Detroit—with more conversations about cities, entrepreneurship, competitiveness, and inclusive growth. As mayors obsess over issues like mobility, 5G, and the Internet of Things, they must understand the impact they will have on a city’s citizens and its diverse communities. Got ideas for how we should drive conversations about these issues? Drop me a line at

Josh Kampel is the CEO of Techonomy.

This article was originally published on Techonomy.

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