Smart leadership is more than failing fast

Smart cities are cities that collaborate and share learnings, which requires strong communication. To continue this line of communication, our third in a series of quarterly Urban Leaders Boardroom Lunches brought together both council officers and councilors from local government, along with representatives from the private sector and think tanks. With a diverse group like this, the conversation is bound to spark some interesting insights, making each organization a little bit ‘smarter’.

Katherine O’Regan, Executive Director of Cities Leadership Institute, began by talking about what this ambiguous term of ‘smart cities’ means and how to best approach it organically. There is definitely a different way of thinking and doing when it comes to being smart, where connecting things and working collaboratively is vital.

The theme of leadership kept emerging throughout the discussion. Smart city initiatives are great, but how do we get the political leaders onboard to support them? As if on cue, everyone turned to the elected Councillor in the room for an explanation. Due to the nature of political cycles, it is no secret that elected officials want an answer to a specific problem and they want a solution that can be labeled as a job well done. This is where it gets a bit tricky.

In smart city thinking, it’s all about “failing fast and being agile” as Neil Temperley, former Executive Product Manager – Future Cities, Data61/ CSIRO, put it. No one wants to highlight their failures, but failure needs to be viewed as a valuable experience with important learning outcomes. Failure is inevitable in this environment. Eamon Waterford, Acting CEO at Committee for Sydney, said it best in stating that “there will not be a 100 per cent success rate because we do not have control over 100 per cent of the issues we are trying to solve.”

Back to the question of how to get political leadership. In an innovative, connected, fast paced society what is therefore needed is not only an acceptance of failure and an ability to fail fast but an acceptance that failing is a welcomed opportunity to learn, grow, and change.

This is a cultural shift for organisations, institutions and the community. It is however a shift that places value in learnings and importantly, shared learnings. Whether there is success of failure these learnings and experiences create social capital that, when openly and willing shared, can benefit multiple communities.

Political leadership needs to be smart leadership. Where success is measured not only on whether the specific project is pass or fail, but where learnings are captured, shared and built upon to continually test, try and tailor the solution to meet ever changing community needs.

As Katherine put it, leading a smart city requires a preparedness to give things a go - it requires “less talk and more hustle".


The Urban Leaders Boardroom Lunch, Smart Cities - Smart Councils is one of the Cities Leadership Institute programmes to build the capacity of urban leaders.

More information contact

Leigh Osterhus

Programme Coordinator

Cities Leadership Institute

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