The Smartest Cities Work Cross-Departmentally

While many cities look far and wide for ways in which they can increase their efficiency through the use of new technologies, one of the most productive things city staff can do before they start implementing smart city solutions is to ensure that all city departments are working together toward the same goals.

Cities are systems. One of the core tenets of systems thinking is that when we optimize for one part of the system, we necessarily de-optimize for another part of the system. Effective city government balances the various parts of the city to ensure that no one part becomes de-optimized.

The only way to ensure that the system works cohesively is to bring departments together, often, so to coordinate. As within a private organization, when departments work toward common goals this leads not only to increased efficiencies and cost savings across the board, but a greater sense of mission among all involved.

Getting Department Heads Together

One of the best ways to create more sustainable communities is to ensure that the public works and sustainability departments of a city are on the same page. These departments need to be communicating on a consistent basis to ensure that they know what each other is doing, why they’re doing it, and how this maps to the city’s overarching goal to improve the lives of its citizens.

Cross-departmental collaboration of this kind was inherent in the Smart City Challenge by the United States Department of Transportation, which was won by Columbus, Ohio in 2016. The challenge asked mid-sized cities across the country to “develop ideas for an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.” The results show holistic thinking of the best kind—systemic approaches to transportation, parking, sanitation, energy, and other solutions that are in the sweet spot of every Public Works and Sustainability Director.

Technology’s Impact on Smart Cities Sharing Data Across Departments

A great example of the need for cross-departmental thinking is emerging in the field of garbage. Waste and recycling collection vehicles go up and down every city street at least once a week—and once a day in certain neighborhoods. If these vehicles were outfitted with technology that allowed them to collect data that is useful and of interest to city departments outside of sanitation—data such as potholes, vacant homes, air quality, and instances of illegal parking, to name but a few—a city could realize significant efficiency gains. This data can be analyzed by the city’s sustainability department to develop better recycling, zero waste, and resiliency policies for city residents. In this way, trucks that spend their days working to accomplish the goal set by the Director of Sanitation can also be used to accomplish the goal of the Director of Sustainability-—with the right cross-departmental planning and coordination. When a smart city pulls in the same direction with all of its departments, it can optimize the city for efficiency and effective service delivery.


Conor Riffle is Director of Smart Cities at Rubicon, a technology company that powers a digital marketplace, provides a suite of SaaS products for waste, recycling, and smart city solutions, and collects and analyzes data for businesses and governments worldwide.

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