Smart city pilots: scaling up or fading out?

We studied 12 smart city projects in Amsterdam, and –among other things- analysed their upscaling potential and dynamics. Here are some of our findings:

First, upscaling comes in various forms: rollout, expansion and replication. In roll-out, a technology or solution that was successfully tested and developed in the pilot project is commercialised/brought to the market (market roll-out), widely applied in an organisation (organisational roll-out), or rolled out across the city (city roll-out). Possibilities for rollout largely emerge from living-lab projects (such as Climate street and WeGo), where companies can test beta versions of new products/solutions. Expansion is the second type of upscaling. Here, the smart city pilot project is expanded by a) adding partners, b) extending the geographical area covered by the solution, or c) adding functionality. This type of upscaling applies to platform projects, for example smart cards for tourists, where the value of the solution grows with the number of participating organisations. Replication is the third and most problematic type of upscaling. Here, the solution that was developed in the pilot project is replicated elsewhere (another organisation, another part of the city, or another city). Replication can be done by the original pilot partnership but also by others, and the replication can be exact or by proxy. We found that the replication potential of projects is often limited because the project’s success is highly context-sensitive. Replication can also be complex because new contexts might often require the establishment of new partnerships. Possibilities for replication exist, though, at the level of working methods, specific technologies or tools, but variations among contexts should be taken into consideration.

Second, upscaling should be considered from the start of the pilot project and not solely at the end. Ask the following questions: What kind of upscaling is envisioned? What parts of the project will have potential for upscaling, and what partners do we need to scale up the project as desired?

Third, the scale-up stage is quite different from the pilot stage: it requires different people, competencies, organisational setups and funding mechanisms. Thus, pilot project must be well connected to the parent organisations, else it becomes a “sandbox” that will stay a sandbox.

Finally, “scaling” is not a holy grail. There is nothing wrong when pilot projects fail, as long as
the lessons are lessons learned for new projects, and shared with others. Cities should do more to facilitate learning between their smart city projects, to learn and innovate faster.

(With a team of five researchers of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS/HvA) we systematically analysed several smart city projects in Amsterdam. This post includes one of the key insights into the management of smart city projects. The report with all our findings will be published next week on the online platform Amsterdam Smart City).