Microsoft CityNext: driving momentum to build smart, sustainable cities

Now in its second year, the Microsoft CityNext initiative is going from strength to strength. Rebecca Lambert spoke with Joel Cherkis to get his perspective on its impact so far

Rebecca Lambert
Rebecca Lambert
By Rebecca Lambert on 03 October 2014
Microsoft CityNext: driving momentum to build smart, sustainable cities

This article was first published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Touch

It’s been a momentous twelve months for Joel Cherkis and his team at Microsoft. In July 2013, Microsoft launched CityNext – a global initiative set up to enable leaders to harness technology to build sustainable cities. Since then, the general manager of Worldwide Government and Defense could not be more pleased with the progress they’ve made.

“In the first year, we’ve received a great deal of attention in the industry, launched our 14 showcase cities, gone from having zero to over 700 solutions and over 200 partners, so we’re gaining significant traction in the market,” he says. “It’s really exciting.”

The so-called “smart cities” concept is not entirely new, but what Cherkis says is different about Microsoft’s approach is how the company is applying its mobile-first, cloud-first strategy, and making it relevant at a time when cities are going through a new wave of how they are managing and optimising their resources to be smarter.

“I think the message around ‘do more with less and new with less’ is resonating with many city leaders too,” he adds. “They know that they need to achieve more and help their cities be more productive, all while the population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.”

Microsoft technology making a difference
This summer, Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta was invited to speak at MGX, Microsoft’s annual global employee event. One thing Reed said that resonated with Cherkis was how he has to optimise and make sense of all the investments that Atlanta has previously made. “He made a comment that it felt like things were duct-taped together and he doesn’t see that as being sustainable,” he says. “But, at the same time, he talked about his conviction and belief that technology would be a force multiplier and how much he believes that Microsoft is going to play a bigger role in cities, not only in Atlanta but around the world.”

According to Cherkis, one way of building a sustainable future for cities is by having information solutions that are cloud-based, so that workers and institutions are not tied to a physical location. “We need to be mobile and recognise that a city pulses 24/7 – it isn’t open normal business hours,” he explains. “Through its mobile-first, cloud-first strategy, Microsoft is uniquely positioned to help cities become smarter and better engage with citizens.”

Big impact
Over the course of the last year, Microsoft CityNext has established an impressive list of customer references. In Buenos Aires, for instance, a mobile app has been developed to help citizens view and monitor local traffic.

“It’s examples like this that show the power of sharing information effectively,” says Cherkis. “Cities can use these apps to better understand citizens’ commuting patterns and, in turn, decide where new roads should be constructed, which roads should be fixed first and so on. It’s the correlations and insights that the cities make from these apps that will provide them with a new understanding and help them make better decisions around their own investments.”

The good news is that cities and city leaders are learning more about the power of collaboration with citizens, and businesses. “One of the new examples that we have is in New Zealand, where the police are using Microsoft Azure and SharePoint as a collaboration platform and leveraging social media to improve responses times,” adds Cherkis. “With these new tools at their disposal, local forces can better monitor situations, send appropriate help and even warn citizens of events that are happening.”

Partners adding value to CityNext
Of course, Microsoft is not achieving this success by itself. More than 200 solutions and services providers are now recognised as official Microsoft CityNext partners and this is growing by the day.

“I think for our partners, this is really an opportunity for them to engage at a different level with us,” says Cherkis. “CityNext is providing a holistic view of a very large market. Our partners have different focus areas and combined with our CEO Satya Nadella’s vision to integrate our digital work and digital lives, we have a very powerful offering. Today, our partners – big and small – have new opportunities to work with us that they haven’t had before.”

Cherkis references partners such as Bismart, which deployed a city dashboard and big data analytics platform in Barcelona, Spain, last year, giving the city near real-time insight into structured and unstructured data so that it can enhance services and business opportunities, improve safety, and boost collaboration with its citizens and businesses. “Bismart is a great example of a partner that created something specific for one city but has provided a smart template that can be used by other global cities,” he says.

Ongoing problem solving
Cherkis’ message to the growing number of Microsoft CityNext partners is to really focus on delivering what cities need as a priority, so they can be more relevant in helping them solve their biggest challenges – whether that’s traffic management, energy optimisation or water issues. “We all need to consider how we become and stay highly relevant to the needs of city leadership and more embedded into cities,” he explains. “It goes back to what Mayor Reed said. He wants to know how, during his term as mayor, he can put measures in place to look after the city for the long run. After all, cities can’t reboot every time there’s a new election. So I think if we and the partners working with us become more embedded and really follow the progress of a city and become proactive in solving problems and showing how the Microsoft platform and their solutions will help the city optimise for the long run, then that’s really valuable.”

Broadening the strategy
Over the next couple of years, Microsoft’s intention is to continue building on the momentum it has achieved so far with CityNext, and then expand it out further into other sectors.

“I recall a joint session with our Enterprise Partner Group leaders and our public sector leaders at MGX,” says Cherkis. “Just as many of the commercial leaders as public sector ones said they were engaged in CityNext. What we want to have happen is that CityNext becomes not just a public sector approach; it needs to be something that is about public sector, commercial and consumer. After all, citizens are consumers too. This speaks to the opportunities for partners to bring together some of their business models and solutions, and to grow either in their enterprise commercial business or their public sector business, because it’s a bridge – something that ties all of these opportunities together. That’s one of the key business strategies that we have as we invest in the future of cities and realise the vision that Nadella has for digital work and digital life. This initiative brings business communities together, because cities are run by governments but they live because of the interaction between consumers, the private sector and the public sector.”

A stand-out approach
When asked what makes CityNext stand out compared to other public sector strategies delivered by competitors, Cherkis explains that Microsoft has a longer term view on how it impacts cities. “I think the vision we had from the beginning that set us apart was to have a people-first, partner-led approach, which means that we listen to the leaders of cities to understand what citizens are demanding,” he says. “Many cities are also still trying to figure out how they become relevant in the conversations that businesses are having with each other so that they can tap into that potential and create value and opportunities to grow their economy, jobs and become more efficient. I think the other thing is that we work to weave all of the assets and programmes that we’ve been developing over the years. We’re not just here to sell technology; we’re looking at the bigger picture. We’re helping cities see how everything fits together.”

China is just one country where Microsoft is taking its people-first approach to build strategic partnerships and be part of the infrastructure from the ground up, rather than being just part of the retrofit. “Getting the model right in China is really important to us as more cities are being built there than anywhere else in the world,” says Cherkis. “Leaders are having to do more with less and new with less, so this is a very meaningful time for us to become more relevant and work with them to create jobs, develop education programmes and deliver healthcare, energy and sustainability solutions across all provincial governments.”

Future plans
Looking to the future, Cherkis is excited by Microsoft’s vision and momentum for CityNext. “We’re taking what we’ve done up a notch and gearing up for what I think is going to be an explosive year for us,” he adds. Cherkis also indicated that Microsoft would be making future organisational changes to further reinforce the growth and success of its strategy. “These investments will fuel CityNext to the next level across all departments in Microsoft, not just the public sector, and that can only be good for our city customers and partners.”

Cherkis is also excited about developing more strategic partnerships and creating open standards to expand on the great work being done through CityNext. “Something I heard many people saying at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona last year was that if something’s really working then they don’t want to have to recreate the wheel. So the question is, how do we learn from cities all over the world? How do we standardise on the successes they’re having so that resources aren’t wasted on solutions that don’t work? We’ve been working on what we call a City Process Classification Framework in partnership with the American Productivity and Quality Center to help build a more comprehensive process for cities. Creating standards like this around city processes, frameworks, business models and architecture is really important, so we will continue to work with other industry leaders and organisations around this issue too. This is how the flywheel will really get going.”

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