Cities need to grow “smart leadership” capability in its public leaders and citizenry in order to create government-citizen engagement, innovate, and build opportunity for citizens in the Smart City Ecosystem.

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Smart Leadership for Smart City Success

Most recently, I had a conversation at an event where we discussed the future of organizations. These are great conversations, as informally at times and more formally in others, we explore trends and begin to see the gaps between present and future states. Still, what happens most often is that the conversation dives into how technology is changing the way organizations are doing business.

Much of the conversation in the press tends to do the same in regards to Smart Cities. The conversation veers towards a heavy bias on technology, and with good reason. Smart Cities are driving innovations that are changing the way people live, work, move, interact with government, innovate, and create more opportunity. These are all good things. The future for citizens can be very promising in these respects.

We are clearly fascinated by the technology and its potential, but one area we cannot minimally converse about is “Smart Leadership.” Cities need to grow “smart leadership” capability in its public leaders and citizenry in order to live, work, create government-citizen engagement, innovate, and build opportunity for citizens in the Smart City Ecosystem. Think for just a minute about how this Smart City ecosystem looks like.

Smart City Ecosystem

The exponential pace of technology will continue, and that pace has tremendous potential to affect the quality of life of citizens in cities around the world. The World Economic Forum, in an article describing the “world’s most future-proof cities,” described technological prowess as a key contributor to a city’s success, also highlighting that the jobs and businesses of the future will be created in cities that have an ecosystem that nurtures innovation.

This ecosystem is complex. This is the space where we begin to see a mixture of all sorts of things; it’s the conversion between the digital and physical worlds. Some of this is seen in the use of sensors, wireless networks, cloud-based computing, and real-time data sharing to optimize the experiences of citizens and the sustainability of city infrastructures.

The case of the cities of Barcelona, Chicago, Amsterdam, Singapore, Stockholm, and New York are some of those examples. These cities have used information and communications technologies (ICT) to improve the functionality of urban systems, advance knowledge transfer, and innovate social and digital networks. Many of these cities, as in the case of Barcelona, used alliances with research centers, public and private institutions, and social innovations to deliver “smart services” to citizens.

Wherever sustained success of the initiatives was achieved in Smart Cities, the feat happened as the result of a good mix between top-down and bottom-up leadership integration, not just ICT. In fact, renowned digital transformation expert Nagy Hanna predicts that any future benefits will require more than technology. Specifically, it will require that leaders organize, engage, and experiment to unleash the potential of smart cities.

Smart City Culture

The complexities of Smart Cities do not only extend to their ecosystems. Leaders must also be adept at developing and nurturing culture. The right culture produces and sustains the right products and services. But what type of culture is the right one? Culture is defined by the collective beliefs, attitudes, and norms of an organization or people. In the instance of smart cities, they collectively believe and see themselves as hubs of innovation.

The World Economic Forum, for example, in naming the 10 most future-prepared cities, broadened the definition of a smart city to include not just the digital component, but also the areas of environmental sustainability, affordable and reliable transit, access to education, and a local economy with businesses that explore new technologies. On another example, Amsterdam, which now considers itself a developing Smart City 3.0, sees itself as an innovation platform for a future-proof city. In other words, a culture of innovation remains at the core of smart cities with the aim to improve socio-economically the quality of life of its people.

This tall order to nurture a shared culture of innovation with the aims just described is even more complex when one considers the prospects of population shifts in cities. The United Nations recently reported its World Urbanization Key Facts. In 1950, 30% of the world’s population was urban. Today, that number is 55%. The projected figure for 2050 is 68%. Today, we have 33 megacities (where the population is at least 10 million inhabitants). That number is projected to increase to 43 megacities by the year 2030. One can only imagine the surmounting task to ensure inclusion is realized in smart cities, while at the same time innovation is cultivated, producing socio-economic prosperity for all.

Smart Leadership for a Smart City

Although the technology is shiny, high-tech, exciting, can connect us and deliver data, without smart leadership, the prospects of smart cities are greatly diminished. Smart leadership is the leadership that smart cities need. It’s the kind of leadership that is able to deal with the complexities of the ecosystem and the culture, in addition to being able to synchronize inputs and outputs in the smart city space to produce socio-economic benefits for all.

Let me be more specific. Smart leadership facilitates collaboration, uses strategic thinking, practices foresight activities, builds alliances and partnerships, gets out of the office and into the trenches where things are not cozy, welcomes and integrates diversity of thought, and is foremost, servant. Additionally, smart leadership in smart cities is not the sole domain of one person. Smart leadership is to be distributed, meaning that the set of leadership skills needed to make the city successful are grown across the workforce. Smart leadership resides in the team.

Today, systems are too complicated to be the domain of one person. Strength now, and certainly in the future, will be the domain of networks of teams. Therefore, the city needs to create leadership networks, nourished with the spectrum of leadership skills of the kind just mentioned, i.e., strategic thinking, etc. Additionally, just as an appointed leader takes responsibility for a work area, also employees must assume responsibility for leading vertically and horizontally. The leadership skills must reside across the force. That’s smart leadership for smart cities.

Smart leadership development skills begin in three key areas: those that develop servant leadership, promote a balance between innovation and sustainability, and develop strategic thinking and foresight. These three leadership development areas are important because they help manage complexity. For instance, research done by Dr. Y.K. Tong at the University of Singapore named enabling, sense-making, and facilitating shared leadership as behaviors central to managing complexity. In short, the leadership development areas give way to the three behaviors that manage complexity.

Why servant leadership? The highest priority of the servant leader is to attend to the needs of the organization and the needs of its people (both needing leadership development will be served). Research on the characteristics of servant leaders highlight that servant leaders, not only put followers first, but they share control with followers and embrace their growth. These are leadership skills needed in smart cities where sustainment and success of initiatives will depend on power sharing among a diverse set of stakeholders.

Why striking a balance between innovation and sustainability? In a smart city, these two roles seem at odds, but they are necessary. In the famous culture works of Dr. Cameron and Dr. Quinn, the tendency for innovation is the desired for an adhocracy culture. This is the environment for continuous improvement, finding creative solutions, and anticipating needs. On the other hand, cities need stability to sustain gains. This is the hierarchy of culture space. In this space, the city achieves control and efficiency with capable processes, all necessary to sustain the coordination of resources to serve citizens.

And why strategic thinking and foresight? Strategic thinking is about the ability to understand the current business condition and link it to the conditions that caused it. In managing complexity, this is the part that produces sense-making. Additionally, foresight allows smart leaders to understand the possible combinations of effects that could result from a set of actions. The practice of environmental scanning to understand trends and the use of scenario planning to imagine the future and test a set of strategies are common and very insightful methods. These develop smart leadership.

Final Thoughts

Leadership development occurs by doing the work. And there is work for everyone. Smart cities are complex entities. As we discussed, their ecosystem is complex and culture must be thriving, striking a balance between innovation and sustainability. Smart cities will not succeed without developing smart leadership. The focus should be on developing leadership skills across networked teams in the three areas mentioned. These teams should be given assignments that put to use the collaboration skills, strategic thinking, foresight tools, and the lessons learned from the feedback of those citizens they serve. Developing leadership across the teams will grow the city’s power to effectively manage complexity and promote prosperity for all.

Always motivated, lugo

©2018 LugoSantiago Enterprise Group

References and notes:

Amsterdam: Better than “Smart”. (2018, May 23).  Governance and Economy. Smart City Hub. Retrieved from

Angelidou, M. (2017). The role of smart city characteristics in the plans of fifteen cities. Journal of Urban Technology, 24(4), 3-28.

Capdevila, I., & Zarlega, M. I. (2015). Smart city citizens? The Barcelona case. Journal of Strategy and Management, 8(2), 266-282.

Cameron, K. S., & Quinn, R. E. (2011). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 41-59.

Garfield, L. (2017, November 17). These 10 cities are the most prepared for the future. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from

Greenleaf, R. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power & greatness (25th ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Hanna, N. (2016). Developing smart cities. Mastering the Digital Transformation: Towards a Smart Society, Economy, City and Nation, 167-186.

Kelly, J. (2018, June 11). These are the world’s most future-proof cities. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from

LugoSantiago, J. A. (2017, October 15). Urgent! Need leaders w/strategic thinking and strategic planning skills. LugoSantiago Enterprise Group (LS|EG). Retrieved from

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Servant leadership. Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. 231-239.

Tong, Y. K., & Arvey, R. D. (2014). Managing complexity via the competing values framework. Journal of Management Development, 34(6), 653-673.

United Nations. (2014). World urbanization prospects: the 2018 revision, key facts. Retrieved from