Are NGOs the key for smart cities?

NGOs are playing a key leadership role in driving smart city developments in the United States.
Published: Fri 08 Dec 2017

Smart cities, and the route towards them, is inevitably complex, involving multiple players across disparate portfolios.

With the ultimate goal of creating a better life for people by making daily activities more efficient, smart cities comprise six main characteristics, according to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) in a new study. These are ‘smarts’ across the economy, environment, people, governance, mobility and living.

The CTA states that the main challenge of smart cities is getting buy-in from all stakeholders. Buy-in from government and businesses is necessary for funding but may be hindered by the difficulty of measuring the return on investment. Buy-in from citizens is also important but is a challenge given concerns on privacy and distrust on the collection and use of personal data.

The development of smart cities often takes place with leadership from a figurehead such as a mayor. But who ultimately should be the driving force, respected by and able to play a neutral role among all the stakeholders and to build the buy-in and collaboration that is required?

Evidence from several successful initiatives in the United States suggests the role may best be filled by an independent public-private-based non-profit or NGO (non-governmental organisation).


Jason Anderson, President and CEO, Cleantech San Diego takes a deep dive into smart cities.

Cleantech for San Diego

“We see ourselves as a safe space, outside the city hall and bureaucracy of government and the utility, where all the different players can come together to talk about their needs and to identify the solutions to meet them,” says Jason Anderson, President and CEO of Cleantech San Diego, of his organisation.

Cleantech San Diego was established as a trade association about a decade ago, before the coining of the concept of ‘smart cities’, to support the region in meeting the then emerging environmental regulations.

Anderson attributes its founding to the vision and leadership of the then mayor on the need for such an organisation.

With much of its early activities focused on promoting solar, it was the emergence of electric vehicles that started shifting Cleantech San Diego’s focus and the development of EV charging infrastructure counts as its first smart city venture.

“We learned in that of the importance of collaboration for the implementation and deployment of actual projects,” says Anderson. “The private sector, academics and the utility are all needed alongside the city.”


Jennifer Sanders, Executive Director, Dallas Innovation Alliance gives a deep dive into the PPP model for smart cities.

Dallas innovation

Jennifer Sanders, Executive Director of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, believes an NGO model is critical to a smart city development.

“We can act both autonomously and more quickly than a city department,” she says. “We believe that being free of the burden of procurement and being able to get lessons learned quickly has been critical to the success thus far of our initiatives.”

Dallas Innovation Alliance is responsible for the design and execution of a smart city strategy for Dallas, which Sanders describes as “multi-faceted”.

In the Living Lab pilot phase, the “differentiator” from other initiatives, as she puts it, is the implementation of several projects in the same area in order to understand not only the value they bring individually but also how the data can be used across projects.

“We aim to maximise the insight and it comes down to being proactive rather than reactive about the data,” Sanders says, highlighting another emerging smart city trend, viz that of open data in which datasets are made widely available to for example, enable researchers to gain further insights or developers to build out smart city apps.

“It’s all about using the insights to improve people’s lives and for the city to save money that can be reinvested in other areas that are important for them.”


Emily Yates, Deputy Director, Envision Charlotte explores how to create an environment for smart city projects.

Envisioning Charlotte

Terms like “neutral space” and “nimbleness” are also quoted by Emily Yates, Deputy Director of Envision Charlotte.

“Cities could achieve what we have without an Envision Charlotte but I don’t think they could manage it at the same speed,” she says.

As an example, she cites a project involving sensors on bins which failed.

“We can say we tried it but didn’t succeed and we could move quickly away without some of the cumbersome processes that other entities can face.”

Envision Charlotte, which is leading Charlotte’s progress as a smart city, is perhaps unique among such organisations, having emerged as a utility initiative. Led by the then CEO of Duke Energy, Jim Rogers, the aim was to drive energy efficiency in commercial buildings and investigations at the time identified this would best be driven by an independent entity.

Such was the success of that initiative that it embedded the notion of the importance of energy and water in driving smart city developments. In addition, through the intervention of the White House in 2015, it has given rise to a broader Envision America initiative applying the Envision Charlotte experience in a further ten cities across the US.

Envision Charlotte is also in a partnership with the Dallas Innovation Alliance to share their lessons learned with other cities across the globe.

With the energy efficiency target met, Envision Charlotte is now focused on other areas including water use, waste management and greenhouse gas emission reduction.

“With these programmes we see that entities and organisations are realising they need to be more collaborative to have a bigger impact and to better provide services for their constituencies.”

Related Webinar