As the world continues to face the fallout of COVID-19, climate change and economic upset, governments are making a concerted effort to ‘build back better’ (as the relevant U.S. legislation is aptly named).
And, if you’re an IoT product leader, that means you’re about to enter a new age of opportunity, as municipalities investigate how smart city technology can help them stimulate the economy, reduce the impact of climate change, and create better lives for citizens.
But it’s not as simple as building devices for smart cities and watching the millions roll in. IoT product leaders need to be aware of two things.
First of all, municipalities are choosing from a huge range of IoT providers. Which means you’re facing stiff competition. If you want to stand out, you’ll need to differentiate yourself carefully.
Second of all, municipalities know exactly what they want. While exact targets vary from city to city, pretty much every municipality will need to show that their investment in IoT is supporting three areas:
- Sustainability – Cleaner energy generation, less wastage of resources, easier ways to reach their carbon emission reduction targets.
- Efficiency – Ways to make life easier for citizens, use time and resources more effectively, and multiply the city’s economic potential.
- Health and safety – Reduced crime and accidents, protection against COVID-19 outbreaks, better overall citizen health.
Considering that most municipalities have to go through a rigorous vetting process before they make any sort of purchase — and show that they’ve weighed up all vendors who applied based on their quality and cost-effectiveness — it’s vital that you show how your IoT devices support these priorities.
But how do you build and market your devices in a way that makes them attractive to city councilors and government officials?
We’ve rounded up three features you need to consider if you want your IoT device to make it through the tender process for municipalities.
1. Show how you fit into their sustainability targets
It’s nearly impossible to find a smart city project that isn’t being designed with some kind of sustainability target in mind.
From EU member states to Japan, Korea, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, many countries have already made legally binding commitments to carbon reduction. And many of those who haven’t made legal commitments have still announced targets to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050.
According to Netzerotracker — a site that keeps a record of net-zero commitments made worldwide — 136 countries and 235 cities have pledged to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050.
Which means that, wherever you’re selling your smart city devices, you’re going to need to show how you can help municipalities reach that goal.
You should be considering this in two dimensions.
First, make sure you’re publicizing how your product can help cities actively reduce emissions. Whether you’re in the smart grid business and your technology is designed to help cities reduce their energy use, or your traffic management IoT can help reduce vehicle emissions, make sure your marketing demonstrates the sustainability impact of using your devices. If a municipality can tie your IoT devices to a concrete number, or a concrete way to reduce emissions, they’ll find it much easier to justify their investment.
However, you also need to consider your own green credentials. It’s easy to overlook the fact that IoT devices themselves use up a great deal of energy. Between the power needed to transmit data over the network and the number of IoT batteries that end up in landfills, the IoT industry has a sizeable carbon footprint.
So, in addition to showing how you’ll help cities become more sustainable, you’ll also have to make it clear how you reduce your own environmental impact.
If you’re still at the product development stage, think about ways to prolong the battery life of your IoT device. Could you switch to rechargeable batteries? Or explore solutions like Everactive’s ultra-low-power integrated circuits?
If your product has already gone out to market, make sure you’ve explored ways to cut or offset your company’s carbon emissions. How can you reduce the environmental impact of your office space, your vehicles, or in the cloud storage you use for your data?
Once these measures are in place, make them — and your carbon reduction targets — public and put them pride of place in your bids to municipalities.
2. Take proactive steps to protect their citizens and their systems from cyber attacks
If you’re selling IoT to smart cities, you’ll need to overcome one major obstacle: concerns about cyber attacks.
Even the most seemingly-innocuous IoT tech — from smart lighting to smart grids or environmental sensors — can be a major weak point, if unsecured. Just one unprotected device could be the opportunity hackers need to penetrate a city’s entire IoT infrastructure. Once that infrastructure is compromised, smart cities could become a target for anything from denial of service attacks to hijacking, putting citizens in real danger.
Any concerns municipalities might have had about weaknesses in their IoT became terrifyingly real in 2018, when the city of Atlanta was crippled by ransomware bug SamSam. The attack wiped years’ worth of vital legal and police data and cost the city upwards of $12.2 million.
If you’re building or selling an IoT product for smart cities, you’ve probably already heard about the attack — and seen the impact on your sales cycle.
And that fear isn’t going away as governments worldwide continue to emphasize the potential dangers of smart cities. In 2021, for example, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) published guidance warning that smart cities will be a prime target for hackers and that councils must be very careful to secure their “connected places”.
The result of this — highly justified — fear is that most of your target audience will likely have very clear security requirements for all of their IoT investments. An ESI Thoughtlab study recently showed that smart city leaders are investing most heavily in:
- Cloud and network security
- Protecting the city’s most valuable assets and imposing tight access control policies for systems
- Hiring more cybersecurity specialists and staff
- Providing cybersecurity training for staff
- Protecting critical infrastructure like electricity grids, traffic lights, hospitals and other urban assets from cyber attacks
As an IoT product leader, showing that you’ve taken steps to consider these cybersecurity needs could be a major competitive advantage. If you can demonstrate that your IoT device proactively detects and addresses security threats with in-built endpoint protection — instead of forcing smart cities to invest more funds and time with cybersecurity add-ons — you’ll reassure municipalities that you’re making security a priority.
Ideally, you’ll want to provide 24/7 support, complete visibility over attempted attacks and potential vulnerabilities, and frequent updates to security protocols (so you can stay ahead of hackers at all times). This level of protection can be difficult to provide on its own, so you might want to consider finding a cybersecurity expert you can partner with to help you build and run your IoT device security systems.
3. Show them you can help extract more value from their data
Smart cities are data generation machines. And, for many municipalities, all of that data comes with the promise of something that was once unimaginable: the chance to predict the future.
Miguel Ponto-Luz, Deputy Mayor of Cascais perhaps put it best in a recent Deloitte report: “Citizens don’t want a city that reacts to what is happening; they are asking for cities that will anticipate the future, and that is what…all the knowledge that we are collecting here [is] for.”
But what does this mean for your IoT products?
Well, in an ideal world you’d make artificial intelligence a core part of your business offering. The data gathered by your IoT devices would be funneled into a machine learning algorithm that extracts insights and makes recommendations on how the city can optimize itself through better energy use, maintenance schedules, infrastructure development, or public transport timetables.
If you can offer integrated AI, the first thing to do is make sure that your devices fit any relevant legal frameworks for AI adoption that your customers might need to follow. The World Economic Forum’s AI procurement guidelines are a good place to start. Designed to help government bodies protect citizens and maximize their AI investment, these are currently only being tested in the UK, but are likely to become commonplace worldwide over the next few years.
If you don’t have AI capability built into your devices, it’s still important to show that your smart city technology can support wider AI initiatives.
For one thing, any city that makes widespread use of citizen data is likely to be under heavy scrutiny for privacy and data security. This means it’s even more important that you show you’ve taken the appropriate cybersecurity steps to prevent data breaches or misuse of data.
It’s also a good idea to make sure your marketing emphasizes your device’s compatibility with major AI platforms. Show that it’s easy for municipalities to export clean, usable data and funnel it into their AI algorithms. If possible, collect case studies that show your devices being used in machine learning and that highlight the role of your devices in data-driven decision-making.
Selling IoT products to municipalities is all about knowing exactly what they need — and proactively demonstrating that you can provide it.
The good news is that, like most government bodies, smart city councils and municipalities are very open about what they’re looking for. Many of them publish their decision-making and procurement frameworks online, as well as their goals and ambitions for their smart city projects.
If you want your smart city technology to make the cut, you’ll need to show that:
- Your IoT can support sustainability goals — and you’ve taken steps to make your tech more sustainable, too.
- You’re proactively protecting citizens and cities from security and privacy violations.
- You can help municipalities make the most of their data in a safe and secure way.
Build products that support these needs — and market them accordingly — and you’ll be well on your way to winning more smart city contracts.