Cloud Computing Unlocks Innovation Opportunities For City CIOs

Local governments are generally slower in embracing emerging technologies than other sectors of the economy. That’s no big revelation to anyone. This hesitancy is often for good reason. Many city systems are essential services and they don’t invite experimentation and risk-taking. The private sector by definition must push innovation and take higher risks because their competitiveness in the marketplace often depends on it. Governments don’t have the same motivations. That doesn’t let them off the hook though. When cities are ready to take the plunge, emerging technologies coupled with innovative processes can lower the cost of operations, deliver better community experiences, and automate and accelerate many services.

Cloud Innovation

Cloud computing, at first slow to be used in the public sector, is now picking up the pace of adoption in cities. It’s used in some form by over 50% of all governments and spending on cloud computing is increasing by around 17% per year. It’s creating all manner of government efficiencies. The city of Honolulu in Hawaii made a commitment to cloud services that has enabled new services and brought down technology costs. But what about innovation? Government use of cloud computing is finally beginning to deliver that promise too. However, realizing new value can be elusive and often secondary to other, more pressing, priorities. How might city CIOs leverage cloud computing as a platform for innovation and positive change in their communities?

City agencies have traditionally built and managed their own on-premises datacenters. This is not unlike the history of technology in the private sector, although cities have clung onto their preference for owning and maintaining their technology infrastructure far longer. Now, cloud computing and its derivative: everything-as-a-service (XaaS), is in full adoption mode.

The Future is XaaS

Cloud computing is a style of computing that provides technology services over the Internet. Today, those services are deep and wide. Almost everything can be provided this way. That’s where the term Everything-as-a-Service or XaaS originates. These computing services span from software applications to storage and identity management, from development platforms and communication suites to artificial intelligence-as-a-service and much more. No longer burdened with capital costs and long-term contracts, XaaS is providing City CIOs with service flexibility, little-to-no maintenance, peace of mind with built-in disaster recovery, and better financial terms.

Mayors, city managers, community members and other stakeholders are demanding more innovation at city hall and across their city. Armed with an array of on-demand XaaS capabilities, reduced capital expenditures, and freed up staff who would otherwise be deep in old-school datacenter management, CIOs can finally unlock innovation opportunities.

Innovating with XaaS

The ability to move quickly on needs and subscribe to state-of-the-art solutions, often by simply entering a corporate credit card, is making XaaS a core driver of digital transformation and is supporting smart city initiatives. It’s reducing the need for cities to build solutions since so many government-focused software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications are now available. It’s reducing project implementation timelines because the needs for hardware acquisition and deployment, software installation, integration and complex configuration, are either minor or eliminated altogether.

With the complexity and maintenance of technology infrastructure diminishing through cloud computing, the city CIO and team can focus on higher-value work. This means that over time, the focus can be on understanding city needs and strategy, deeper business analysis, and even experimentation. The CIO becomes a peer of other departments rather than being relegated to a back-office service provider.

Cities across the world are finding that XaaS is enabling all manner of rapid and innovative solutions. Los Angeles used cloud services to develop a system that sends an earthquake alert to mobile phones one-minute before it hits. The non-stop city of Tel Aviv, Israel has become a leading smart city through its use of digital services and XaaS. The CIO, Liora Shechter, championed a system called DigiTel that provides a one-stop platform for citizens to communicate with government and receive personalized services.

A Few Challenges Still Exist

Widely adopting XaaS is not without challenges and risks. Many city technology staff continue to be conservative on making rapid moves away from on-premises solutions. The detachment from traditional hands-on oversight that includes swapping out failing hardware to configuring cybersecurity systems, doesn’t sit well with many. Some will need to be pushed into this new era, rather than gleefully skipping into this digital transformation.

Cloud computing and XaaS also means losing some level of control. This includes narrower options for configuration. With multitenancy (the vendors infrastructure is designed to deliver consistent experiences that scale to all users) all subscribers get the same services. CIOs must also be comfortable with having less of a role in security and with a higher risk to privacy. With XaaS, that’s mostly the vendors job. Subscribing to cloud services can also expose organizations to a form of lock-in. This means that discontinuing services from one vendor in favor of another can present real difficulties in moving data smoothly to the new platform. Finally, cities are required to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements. That might mean that data needs to be handled a certain way including being stored in the same country as the city.

Despite, these real risks and challenges, the adoption of cloud computing and XaaS by city CIOs presents enormous opportunities for better community experiences, lower costs and a long overdue platform to unleash the innovation that cities so desperately need and desire.

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This article first appeared in Industry Tech Insights.

You can learn more about XaaS in my LinkedIn Learning Online Video Course.

I discuss the role cloud computing and other technologies in local government in my bestselling book, Smart Cities for Dummies.

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Dr. Jonathan Reichental

Dr. Jonathan Reichental

Multiple award-winning technology and business leader. Best-selling author. Professor. Idea machine.