Thingking for Smart Cities and Municipalities - with Internet of Things and Design Thinking

By Walter Knitl and Nilufer Erdebil

COVID-19 has accelerated the use of existing digital technologies and new digitalization everywhere by individuals, enterprises, industries, and governments – e.g., working from home, online shopping, logistics, automation, physical distancing, and other pandemic mitigation measures. That includes the accelerated adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is a big part of the overall digital realm.

Municipalities have borne the greater part of the mitigation effort, significantly impacting their budgets in the immediate term and, therefore, their ability to address their intended focus areas such as infrastructure, public transit, sustainability, and others. Nevertheless, most municipalities forecast increased digitalization to recover from the pandemic and grow their economies and citizens’ quality of life.

As we’ll see below, IoT plays important digitalization roles in several key focus areas and is an inextricable underlying layer for Smart Cities – including such notables as Singapore and Barcelona. Consequently, municipal recovery and growth’s success will significantly depend on systemically leveraging IoT across all areas.

Ultimately, success will be founded on:

  • Position of strength in Digital Literacy in IoT, including its uses, benefits, and pitfalls.
  • Understanding the ecosystem of IoT providers, talent, funding, and investment sources to execute focus areas or Smart City initiatives.
  • Sharing of knowledge and experiences in IoT adoption models among municipalities.
  • Citizen-centric digital governance policies to maximize IoT-based solution benefits and mitigate risks – ensuring both citizen and government problems are solved.
  • Systemic or holistic approach to solutions in focus areas and the broader Smart City.
  • Knowledge of and the ability to use innovation techniques for solutions and digital governance.

Step in – the Internet of Things

Despite the mythical notion that the Internet of Things allows fridges to talk to stoves, IoT is much broader than that and is not any single technology, economic sector, or use case. It is a paradigm with connected physical devices at its inception but extended to envelope much of the overall digital realm. When we talk about IoT, we are also talking about digital. The IoT space encompasses architectural components such as devices, communication networks such as 5G, and cloud; vertical digital solutions such as connected transportation, smart buildings, and wearables; and various domains or disciplines such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, privacy, and others.

So why should we care about IoT?  In a nutshell, IoT has made its way into every corner of the global economy and is increasingly impacting our work and lives. It is everywhere. It has effectively become a mindset on building the world around us and relating to it, consequently compelling new digital governance around it. 

Among the various verticals and broader paradigms such as Industry 4.0, where IoT plays, IoT underpins many individual focus areas of cities and municipalities and serves as a common base layer that ties them together in a Smart City paradigm.

How does IoT Underpin Key Municipality Focus Areas



National infrastructure – the shared roads, bridges, sewers, street lighting, and other substructures that underpin community life reside mostly within municipal jurisdictions. IoT plays a vital role in gathering data about such substructures’ physical aspects and provides the means for an immediate reaction or longer-term proactive measures to best serve the community.  For example, it could be as simple as sensing both the ambient light and the presence of people in the immediate area to turn on/off street lighting, pole-by-pole, or block-by-block.  Or, it could be something more enduring, like having concrete-embedded sensors in roads or bridges to monitor usage over time or detect concrete deterioration to trigger preventive maintenance – ultimately improving cost, safety, and citizen convenience.

Public Transit

The role of public transit consisting of buses, light rail, and other means is to provide efficient mobility with reduced commute times that result in increased productivity, reduced rider stress, and greater convenience. Public transit, however, does not stand alone but is a part of the overall transportation system that also includes private vehicles. IoT plays an essential role in that combined Connected Transportation system. For example, sensing and communicating the geo-location of public transit vehicles combined with real-time traffic data from curbside sensors or intersection machine-vision-based analysis provides accurate arrival-time forecasts. The same data is used to control traffic by changing traffic-light timing or through short-range electronic signaling (DSRC) to vehicles according to municipal policies – whether favouring public transit over private, avoiding certain roads or areas, minimizing overall GHG emissions, or other objectives.

Public Safety

Assuring public safety comes in many forms ranging from street lighting to managing COVID pandemic-compelled infection avoidance to environmental monitoring. IoT shines here again. For example, IoT has a role in the touchless operation of public facilities to minimize infection spread by sensing human proximity and intention and actuating drinking fountains, doors, or elevators as needed. IoT also supports fixed or robotic roaming U.V. based sanitization. IoT is also involved in monitoring physical distancing in public spaces through machine vision on mounted or drone-borne cameras or apps on personal smartphones. That is not a thing of the future – it is here now.

Aside from pandemic-driven public safety, IoT is used to monitor the environment by sensing harmful atmospheric emissions, water pollution, flooding, or wildfires, among other conditions. In addition to the smart street lighting mentioned above, various sensors can be deployed where needed to prevent impending crime or shorten first-responder response times. That can be accomplished by extracting and predicting potentially aggressive behaviour through machine-vision, prioritizing paths to emergencies for first responders, or in extreme cases (neighbourhoods), gunshot detectors and locators.

Rebalancing streets is an essential measure for public health and safety during the COVID-19  pandemic, and where IoT can also play a role in the demarcation between vehicular and pedestrian spaces.


IoT is instrumental in creating Smart Buildings, making residential and commercial buildings more energy-efficient, safe, and resilient. It makes buildings less costly to operate, last longer, and generate cleaner air.

IoT’s sensing, data communication, analytics, and actuating characteristics underpin the management of security, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning to be delivered where and when needed in the building, personalized to the people occupying the rooms or spaces.  IoT also optimizes and coordinates energy exchanges between the public smart grid and any privately (or municipally) owned energy sources such as solar panels, heat pumps, and battery storage. Also, IoT has a significant role in building access, security, and emergency response.

Climate and Sustainability

Mitigating and reversing the climate crisis and living within the natural environment’s sustainable capacity can take many forms. In general, across the many forms, it involves sensing the physical environment and automating processes that reduce our take and discard, from and to, the environment (including carbon) – another forte of IoT.

Climate change mitigation and sustainability are achieved implicitly through the above municipal focus areas involving IoT. As municipalities and cities strive to become Low-Carbon Cities in Canada (LC3), they will inevitably converge on adopting the Circular Economy where IoT has a big play.

Municipalities will be the main contributors to executing Canada’s Climate Plan, which is destined to benefit from IoT – both within municipal jurisdictions and higher government levels.

How Does IoT Interplay with Other Focus Areas

Connectivity is a central aspect of IoT to enable communication among devices, cloud or edge services, applications, and humans. That is aligned with municipalities’ focus on Telecommunication infrastructure and, more specifically, Broadband. IoT needs deterministic real-time communication such as that offered by 5G and relatively high-bandwidth broadband in the core or back end to provide end-to-end implementation. IoT-based municipal solutions go hand-in-hand with related telecommunications and broadband evolution.

International engagement by municipalities in terms of export and provision of expertise or attracting investment and talent into the community is another key focus area, as a pillar of economic development. That includes technological engagement, requiring demonstration or commitment to technology innovation and a modern, livable city.  Adopting IoT grows and shows a municipality’s technological mindset and expertise since IoT pulls on many different technologies such as A.I., cybersecurity, 5G, and others. Also, IoT-based solutions, such as those described above, create a livable municipality, which is fundamental to attracting new talent and citizens.

IoT is not just for operational efficiency and quality of life but also a contributor to economic development.

Systemic Thinking and Governance

While municipality focus areas are tagged as separate items, they are not, in reality, independent silos but overlap and interplay in support of each other. For example, good infrastructure supports efficient public transit, reducing GHG emissions to support climate change mitigation and sustainability. Similarly, public safety depends on, in part, the availability of public housing. And there are other such interdependencies.

This interdependence requires a systemic thinking approach leveraging the technologies and processes for solutions in one area toward solutions in others. It also means considering the impacts or outcomes in one area on others.  That is what differentiates in large part Smart Cities from disparate projects in area silos. It aligns well with the IoT space, as IoT is itself a systemic paradigm – involving many different digital technologies that can be reused or adapted across various solutions.

Smart Cities and IoT are paradigm shifts, and paradigm shifts have resulted in new governance models, too-often being reactive rather than coactive. Smart Cities and IoT’s systemic nature also compels a systemic digital governance approach that cuts across seeming silos.  This, in turn, requires digital literacy around IoT by policymakers for the most effective and timely digital governance policies. Additionally, collaborative innovation techniques such as Design Thinking will be needed to innovate, be coactive, and deliver systemic digital governance.

Design Thinking Steps in

Design thinking is a solution-based way of thinking that leverages a user-centric methodology. It provides the structure and methods for advanced collaborative and creative problem-solving for complex environments. It focuses on understanding the users’ needs and delivering on what is possible.

Design thinking has five phases – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. It involves empathizing with end-clients’ challenges from their perspective, working with them to define their problem clearly, co-create solutions, and test solution options. It is a mental model for decision making and a roadmap to innovation based on real problem definitions.

Design thinking is an inclusive approach involving collaboration among stakeholders that examines alternatives and works to reduce limiting ideas and constraints through critical questioning, data, and analysis. Perfect for bringing independent silos that overlap and interplay together. It also involves looking at things from many perspectives to fully understand the challenges faced by all stakeholders.  

Design Thinking is a well-practiced methodology applicable to various situations in different domains, levels of complexity, and scope. For example, to name a few, it can be used to innovate specific physical products, software, services, business strategies and processes, or governance.  It can also be applied at a higher-level scope systemically combining several systems or policy areas or coordinating projects. Additionally, it can be used for problems of budgets, funding, and investment.

With that in mind, Design Thinking is well suited to tackle the challenges of municipality focus areas and Smart City involving IoT. Among others, the following are just some examples:

  • Uncover real needs related to different focus areas (transit, housing, safety, other) through empathy with citizens.
  • Bring municipal internal functions together – planning, economic development, policy, maintenance, construction, I.T. – to understand individual problems and constraints and together ideate IoT-based solutions and implementation.
  • Select the right technologies and partners and get them to work together.
  • Develop budgets, funding sources, or investment options.
  • Innovate new systemic digital governance parallel with the IoT-based focus areas solutions, involving citizens, municipal stakeholders, and partners.

By leveraging design thinking at the onset, there is no predetermined outcome, providing opportunities to root out real needs and the most appropriate solution. There will be less time wasted creating and implementing products and solutions that don’t solve the underlying problems. And, products will not be created or purchased just for the sake of having the latest technology. We implement because it solves real problems we are facing or will face in the future. We have had municipalities tell us that they ruled out, through design thinking rigour, projects that weren’t ready to go. When more thought is put into the people who will be using systems, processes, products, and services, they have a higher chance of successfully solving the problem for which they are developed. Delivering innovations and new solutions in new ways improves lives.

The above are just some situations and reasons for applying Design Thinking. However, Design Thinking is also valuable for learning and attaining digital literacy in IoT by working through representative IoT use cases – whether product or service related or the governance surrounding IoT. In our complex world of ever-changing environments, we require the ability to look at things from many perspectives to deliver new options for citizens, whether improving operational efficiencies, quality of life, or economic development. Design Thinking makes that all possible.

State of IoT

The Internet of Things is a globally accepted paradigm, achieving penetration in all parts of national and global economies, changing the way we live and work, and a foundation of all Smart Cities.  While Canada’s relationship with IoT is still evolving relative to global jurisdictions, the following places can be leveraged to ramp up on IoT:

Digital Literacy through the Internet of Things and Design Thinking training is available to quickly ramp policymakers to a level of technological intuition needed to innovate solutions and policies involving IoT. 

ThingkFest events by IoT North provide a virtual platform for Canada’s Internet of Things Conversation, offering opportunities for Canada’s IoT providers, users, innovators, and thinkers to share their IoT involvement.

AIoT Canada, a non-profit organization, supports its members’ growth, competitiveness, and influence, locally and internationally, in the rapidly evolving Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) space.

 Alberta IoT Association, a non-profit organization with a mission to position Alberta as the worldwide center of excellence for the Internet of Things technology.

Everything and every Thing is connected

As we, nations and the international community, take strides to mitigate the current ongoing COVID-19 pandemic situation and recover from it, municipalities will account for most of the effort. The various municipal focus areas, while seemingly separate, are interconnected, as is the underlying layer of the Internet of Things that underpins solutions across the board.  The Internet of Things interconnects the municipal physicality – various sensors, devices, buildings, and infrastructure, Things – with municipal operations, administration, and, yes, the citizens themselves.

That interconnectedness will require systemic innovation and systemic digital governance approaches and collaborative methods surrounding IoT. Consequently, to address municipal focus areas, policymakers, municipal planners, and economic development managers must acquire a level of technological intuition in IoT. That means elevating their IoT Digital Literacy and using innovation techniques such as Design Thinking.

Everything and every Thing is connected!

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