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Town of Cary, NC

Categories: Smart Cities

Reimagining Cary, North Carolina

In 2017 the Town of Cary, North Carolina (160,000) adopted the Cary 2040 Community Plan which provides a roadmap for enabling Cary to address a number of significant challenges and build a Town that has sustainable growth while continuing to build on the strong neighborhoods and livability that has made it one of the best places in the country to live and work. While the 2040 Plan provides a policy roadmap, it does not provide the roadmap of how to achieve them.

It is in that context that Town Manager Sean Stegal, recognizing that the existing government structure and approach that enabled Cary to become a successful town was not sufficient to reach the vision and policy objectives of the 2040 Plan determined to create “the Town that doesn’t yet exist.” Meaning that Cary needed to move from the “Old World” of operating in highly functional, yet siloed service departments to the “New World” of a culture of collaboration and innovation throughout the town to address the challenges and maximize the opportunities existing in Cary.

Although they are only a little more than one year in this endeavor, the approach has already shown concrete results and not only in implementing Smart City projects. The increase in efficiencies and effectiveness created by this new approach has improved service delivery and saved money by avoiding duplication and improving the ability to departments to leverage one another’s capabilities. The 2018 Quarterly Report to the Town Council provides some, but not all examples of this return on investment.

For our purposes what is important is to identify some initial lessons learned that have enabled Cary to achieve what it has, while boldly pushing forward to create the “town that doesn’t yet exist.” Below are some of these lessons. Keep in mind that this is not only a work in progress, but it is an iterative effort with new lessons being learned literally every day. But it is a good place to start. 

Initial Lessons Learned

1. Establish a Vision

As with any bold endeavor it is important to establish a vision for what you want to future to look like. While the 2040 Plan serves as the “North Star” for the Town’s efforts, the vision is really captured in the commitment to create “the town that doesn’t yet exist’” to move from the old way of operating to the new. With the new focused on empowering the town to unleash innovative solutions and initiatives through new collaborative approaches to doing business.

2. Establish a Leadership Team

There needs to be a team of people who are willing to leap into the new world and are driven by a shared vision. While it is a given that this team needs to continue to ensure the highest quality of service delivery, its real mission is one of culture change.  As such this team needs to be constantly focusing on enabling and empowering new ways of conducting operations.

3. Provide Balcony Time for the Team

Regardless of the most visionary intentions there is no question that the day-to-day demand on the Leadership Team will often be overwhelming, leaving little time to focus on the visionary goals. To that end the Team needs to put a process in place to ensure it has time to get out of the day to day and step on to the balcony to observe and analyze what is occurring in a more holistic fashion. And given the everyday stressors they may require help in doing this. If so the Team should ensure that any contractors that are brought in to help not only share their same vision but can contribute through innovations of their own.

4. Create a Culture of Experimentation

This is critical.  This is new territory and there is no magic formula to get there.  There needs to be a safe place for people to experiment and if necessary fail. Recognizing that governments can’t afford to fail too expensively it is important that the experiments be designed in to take place in a scalable fashion. In other words, you want to “think big” but don’t leap into trying to take on everything at once. Take it in stages.

5. Focus on People

If Smart Cities starts with smart people than it is obvious that the key to success will be the people. In fact, the focus must be on individuals. Not everyone is willing to take the kind of leap where they may fail, so first and foremost it is crucial to identify those individuals who not only share the vision but are willing to take a risk to implement it. And do everything necessary to empower them including empowering them to empower others.  

6. Employ Technology to Support the Culture

The technology implementation not only has to be close to the work – that is to support the day to day functioning of the town, it has to employed to support this new way of working. That means the platforms you implement as your core system have to be adaptive, scalable and sustainable. They can’t be configured in such a way as to inhibit information sharing and collaboration. They have to enable and empower the culture you are trying to create. And it needs to be configured and deployed in such a way as to enable everyone to not only to use it, but to work to create their own tools. Cary’s approach to this is to create the “One Cary” platform which is based on an integration of its core existing platforms. While still a work in progress the One Cary platform, with no wrong door for access will enable people to seamlessly access, share and collaboratively work with the information they need as well as build tools to enhance their use of that information.

7. Create Parallel/Experimental Structures

These should not be overly formal or burdensome but instead should be in support of the new culture of operations. In Cary, given the importance of Strong Neighborhoods in the 2040 Plan they have created a “Strong Neighborhood Think Tank” comprised of people from multiple parts of the organization, to identify key issues that need to be addressed. The Think tank has spun out a series of cross departmental Action Teams to address those issues through various actions including experimentation with new approaches. Each of these has an Executive Sponsor to provide guidance and visibility. This loosely organized structure has enabled Cary to unleash a dozen or so Action teams with great success.

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Town of Cary, NC - Smart City Case Study

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