Smarter Cities: Incorporate The "How To" Of Execution Into The Vision Itself

According to IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano, “vision without execution is delusion.”  That saying stuck in the minds of attendees at IBM’s SmarterCities event in Shanghai last week making it the de facto theme of the event. According to Palmisano, it’s time to move beyond ideas and put those ideas into practice.

I would argue, however, that when it comes to making “cities” smarter it’s not a question of “vision without execution.”   IBM and others are executing, particularly in China and other emerging markets. IBM’s growth markets revenue was up 19% in 2009, up from 18% growth in 2008. China alone grew 14.7 % in 2010. In many markets, stimulus funding has spurred spending on “smart” initiatives. 

Rather, it is still more a question of vision.  The mantra of smarter cities resonates with many — it’s like motherhood and apple pie, or the equivalents across the globe (rice pudding? crème brûlée?). You can’t argue against it. But, can you show me a smarter city? “Smarter cities” is a catch-all phrase for any initiative undertaken by a government or even nongovernmental entity — the transport ministry or tax agency, the postal service, a hospital or university, or even an association of exporters. Don’t get me wrong; I love the idea. I’ve just been wrestling with a definition for some time now. Everything can be a “city” and within IBM’s sights. 

I would argue that the corollary is also true, and more worrisome for the cities themselves: Execution without vision is delusion. There is no shortage of ill-advised projects undertaken in the name of economic development. Vision is not only the ideal state but must also includes a view of reality, including the long-term sustainability of government initiatives. And, by sustainability, I don’t just mean “green” but rather the holistic use of the term in development economics that incorporates social and economic, as well as environmental, factors. Governments aren’t always the agile, fast-moving innovators; many face challenges such as entrenched interests, voter education, and the perennial question of funding. Even where they don’t face the threat of election turnover, it takes time to educate “cities.”

IBM is right to focus on the execution or “how to” of smarter cities — on education, collaboration, and new business models — which was the main topic of the event. But, it mustn’t lose sight of the vision as it turns to this execution. And, it must make sure that the vision itself takes into account the obstacles faced by the real cities. Vision is not just the ideal state but also includes the starting point. A truly valuable vision includes the “how to” that enables execution.  Without that, it is truly delusion as Palmisano said.  Perhaps IBM is itself getting smarter.

My upcoming smarter cities report will address how tech vendors must help governments at all levels overcome obstacles to becoming and remaining smarter — whether those obstacles are social, economic, or environmental.  I welcome examples from all types of "cities."

And, I thank IBM for an event which made me smarter as well.


PS. It is no coincidence that IBM chose Shanghai as the venue for the third in a series of SmarterCities events — following New York and Berlin. Shanghai has seen tremendous population growth in recent years and an influx of investment and development. Massive urbanization across China has resulted in over half of the population living in cities, and over almost 20 million residents now live in Shanghai. With population growth of over 25% from 1990 to 2000 and another 15% through the end of 2009, Shanghai is an appropriate host of the World Expo 2010 with a theme of Better City, Better Life. Shanghai is headquarters for IBM’s Growth Market unit, formed in 2008 to focus on opportunities in emerging markets.


Execution without vision is delusion

Excellent post. While IBM's statement is true, so is yours-- and yours needs far more light.

I've observed an enormous amount of execution without vision, to include recently with the stimulus spending. One problem of course -- highlighting the structural challenges in gov markets and influence over spending -- is that governments of all sizes and types rarely invest in visionary innovation; particularly in IT systems.

We see the results in systemic failures.

Mark Montgomery
Founder & CEO

Thanks for the comment, Mark.

I'd love to hear more about your observations of inhibitors to innovation. - Jennifer

innovation inhibitors

It appears that I triggered the spam filter -- pls email for comment -- thanks, MM

innovation inhibitors

I have the capacity for about 100 or so barriers to innovation in my brain at any one time, but the priority list is always moving around depending on which rock I'm looking under-- and there is a great deal of overlap. In the government market, which particularly of late dominates all else it seems, we have a monumental innovation crisis, particularly in the west as reflected by the unemployment rate. See Costners video testimony (CNBC) for his $20 million journey in commercializing one of the better oil clean up technologies.

It's been long known that the most affective barriers to disruptive innovation, or the kind we actually need for smarter organizations, are invisible, and prevent innovation from ever being born (adopted). Thus, they are also the most difficult to capture and reform, although not impossible. These include relationships between entrenched vendors and government--revolving door syndrome, FUD, and internal protectionism in IT-- job protectionism in IT is a big one now relative to SaaS adoption, which is directly preventing innovation and smarter orgs.

Another is of course lack of universal standards. I just released a use case on our healthcare platform -- we had to deal with this issue and the vague regulations in the reform legislation on standards-- unprecedented power in an agency on standards-- the post legislation lobbying has already reached high levels. Anytime an innovator must request permission to exist from entrenched vendors, then obviously disruptive innovation is killed long before customers are aware of it, even if they embraced innovation, which they don't.

Another big one in government is successful lobbying for incremental reforms, which often appear either written by entrenched companies, or certainly on their behalf. Incremental-ism kills innovation.

A slightly less invisible form are consolidation and domination of ad budgets in trade magazines, conferences. A very affective long-term barrier has been industry academia relations, and the outsourcing of R&D to industry leaders in universities and VC.

More specific and very affective are policies and laws at every level of government that require staff to use only certain vendors-- I've heard from state CIOs and researchers that laws require them to use a single vendor for example. Not much incentive to innovate there, and certainly not smart from any perspective other than a lazy CEO in that vendor.

In a more general sense it's the lack of market farming ability throughout the IT ecosystem, which was a cultural kill in my view from toxic chemicals applied over too many years of various flavors of monopolies.

For all of these reasons and many more, I came to the conclusion long ago that a holistic systems approach was necessary -- this white paper "unleash the innovation within" is outdated, but was very popular-- tens of thousands.

Also --a blog post on related issues -- Hidden cost of complexity in the enterprise

Another-- Priests of the Past -- IT preservationists

Of course ignorance is usually somewhere near the top of the list, which is why public exposure is badly needed. -- Thanks, MM

(I removed all links thinking that is what triggered filter-- googling titles above works well)

Would still love to discuss.

Mark, please email me at jbelissent AT Forrester DOT com.

Excellent Post

Indeed an excellent post.

As a matter of fact, earlier in day today I was having meeting with my senior management, and I echo very similar views about visions, & execution and they smart cities are moving ahead..

I wish if I had read your post prior to that, I surely would have made much stronger point.

I liked the phrase “Smarter cities” is a catch-all phrase...