Pilot projects: keys to success

It is likely that the words “smart city pilot project” bring to your mind an image of a street filled with sensors and devices. Truth is, sometimes pilot projects can be somewhat of a show-off, something to be inaugurated and mentioned in the news. However, it is my opinion, that pilot projects can, and should, have a very important role in smart cities.

As Boyd Cohen explains in his article “Smart Cities Should Be More Like Lean Startups”, pilot projects provide the opportunity to fail faster and cheaper. In the case of smart cities this is critical since a city wide deployment of any solution will usually have a sizeable cost. Therefore, pilot projects present an opportunity for cities to do the mistakes at small scale, and be able to change course or to improve the solution, rather than deploying something on all the city and then realizing that in the context it doesn’t work as expected.

I am not saying, however, that cities should simply start doing a lot of pilot projects, what I want is to highlight the importance of studying how to improve these type of projects because when done right they can help drive innovation in cities while reducing the risks in terms of cost and public opinion.

Because all this I have been brooding on this subject for a while and I have come up with what to me are the keys to success for pilot projects.

1. Have a clear objective.

There are are many possible objectives for a pilot project, but in any case it should be clear from the beginning as it will define how the pilot should be executed, what is expected of it and what should be measured in order to evaluate the success of the initiative.The most common objectives can be grouped as follows.

– To test a hypothesis: This is usually the case with the most breaking innovations, when it is necessary to know what the response will be. It can also be needed when the results can be affected by human behaviour. For instance, a smart parking system, by reducing the time it takes drivers to find a spot, will it help to reduce traffic in that area? Or will it cause more people using the car to get to the city now that it is easier to park? When human behaviour is involved, it is hard to predict what it is going to happen, so it is better to analyse first the result at a small scale.

To asses the performance: Some technologies do not perform equally in all contexts, that is the case for example with green roofs, whose performance can be affected by climatic conditions. In a city where there aren’t any, or few, of such roofs, it can be useful  to install one and monitor it to learn its behaviour under that city’s climatological conditions before developing any policy to promote this technology. Then with that knowledge the policy can recommend specific green roof features to make the systems installed on that city more efficient.

– To set a precedent: That is to say, “We must practise what we preach”, and so to engage the citizenry to take up a habit or a solution it is useful that the administration acts as an example as it does in some cases by reducing the impact of public buildings by installing solar panels, or energy monitoring systems.

–  As the first stage of a wider deployment: A tiered implementation in which the first tier works as a test, makes it possible to see how it goes and be able to refine details for the second tier and so forth.

Defining the objective of the project is in my opinion, a crucial step. Without setting a clear objective and making it public, the pilot project will not only be difficult to evaluate, but it can also be easily misunderstood by the citizenry.

2. Measure, evaluate, learn and share the lesson

pilot project does not end once it has been deployed. The performance of the project should be evaluated from the birth of the idea and throughout its entire lifetime. Key performance indicators, goals and milestones should be defined at the beginning of the process and periodically monitored.

All this information should then be analysed to provide learning. Sometimes the lesson can be “this was not a good idea, it doesn’t work in this context so let’s not deploy this at a larger scale” and I would say this kind of lessons may be the most valuable ones. This scenario can be wrongly assumed as a failure, but if the objectives have been clearly defined it does not have to be so. If the objective was to “test” a solution, then it has been fulfilled as long as we extract conclusions that can help us to do better next time.

Finally, the lesson should be shared, both with the public and with other cities. This has different purposes, on one hand citizens will more easily understand the utility of such projects if they are told what is expected to be learned from it and what results have been obtained. On the other hand, sharing the information with other cities will prevent all cities starting from scratch and repeating the same mistakes and therefore increasing the global state of the art in urban innovation.

3. Plan the final stage of the project

When planing the final stage, different scenarios should be considered. In the event the results suggest to no further proceed with the project, one of the options could be to dismantle it, in which case a dismantling plan should have been outlined at the beginning and its economic costs considered in the budget study. Or, on a different note, maybe a proposal could be made to maintain the pilot for educational purposes if that made sense for that project, and then some adjustments could be needed to highlight this new direction, such as a sign, or a route to visit the pilot project.

The optimistic scenario has to be considered as well, if the pilot outcome recommends a wider deployment, or else the repetition of the experience, it will be much easier and efficient if the pilot has been made with such possibility taken into account. An example: if a city were to deploy sensors to measure noise and pollution and decided to start by deploying those in a small area, and then depending on the results deploy them on a wider scale. It would make sense then that the platform these sensors will be connected to can also be scaled in parallel to the scaling of the deployment area.

What I want to highlight here is that the final stage, be it dismantling, re-purposing or scaling the pilot to a wider deployment should be considered from the start in the roadmap of the pilot project. Without this considerations we risk cities becoming a graveyard of forgotten “smart things”.

I am sure in the near future we will be seeing many more pilot projects in our cities and I believe we will keep learning how to make them better, more successful and efficient projects and so in a while I will be able to refine this compilation with new keys, ideas and examples.

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