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Article Article February 2nd, 2016
Cities • Technology

Why smart cities lead to a smarter future for all

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Smart cities combine the social and environmental benefits that digital technology offers us

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Cities will have to use existing public spending or private investment for their smart plans

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Technology designers need to learn from urban design to create human-centric smart cities

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Smart city. Sounds good, right? Who wouldn't want to live in one of those?

The trouble is, dig a little deeper and different definitions abound about what the term actually means. Some view it through an architectural lens and consider how digital technology will transform infrastructure. Others - often social scientists - believe that it arises from the impact of the internet in giving individuals and communities a stronger voice than ever before.

There is merit in both views. Speaking personally, I see smart cities as combining the social and environmental benefits that digital technology offers us. These can be to make a city's infrastructure more efficient and resilient or to create new commercial services, such as Uber and Airbnb. It's also about ensuring that digital infrastructures are accessible to city residents, so that individuals and businesses can use them for their own purposes.

There's no doubt that we need to start doing things differently. The challenges faced by cities in this century will be unlike any we have faced before. United Nations projections show that between now and 2050 the world's population will rise by 2-3 billion, mostly in Asian, African and South American cities, creating intensified global competition for jobs and resources.

Showing leadership and engagement

So, where should we start? What's the role of policymakers in all this? It's important at the outset to point out that cities won't get smart if their leaders aren't involved. Take Sunderland, for example - one of the very few cities in the UK to have spent significant sums of its own money on smart projects and supporting technologies, backed up by well-constructed business cases. It's no coincidence that one of the cities that's been boldest in investing in technology had a chief executive, council leader and chief information officer who showed belief, leadership and engagement in these ideas.

Unfortunately, such examples are rare, and there is little public awareness. Last year, a YouGov poll in the UK found that 96% of people have not heard of a smart city, let alone have an opinion on one. To change that we need to describe smart cities in practical terms that people understand - using your phone to pay for bus and train tickets, for example, and having it warn you about potential delays, or replacing phone boxes with wireless hot spot hubs, as is currently happening in New York City.

To make progress, city leaders should first appoint an executive officer who is tasked with leading and communicating this agenda. The local authorities in the UK that are making progress are those with executive officers who have specific responsibility for smart cities. The second action is to convene a stakeholder forum - something like the Smart London Board or Birmingham's Smart City Commission - to co-create a specific smart city vision and establish governance and a credible decision-making process. And thirdly, policymakers need to be really specific about identifying the levers that can be used to influence spending and investment to support smart city objectives - which is the point where it can run into difficulties.

Influencing spending and investment

With no new money coming from central government, cities will have to use existing streams of public spending or private sector investment to achieve their smart objectives. This requires a commitment to adapt their procurement practices, planning frameworks, and regional investment funds so that their supply and development opportunities reward those proposals that contribute to their smart vision and support local innovation in doing so.

Sunderland and Norfolk (‘smart regions' are just as important as smart cities) took the approach of modifying their procurement practices. They awarded IT infrastructure contracts to the technology companies that were committed to helping them use their infrastructure to meet their smart objectives.

London has chosen to adapt its planning policy. For example, the developers competing for the East Wick and Sweetwater development (part of the Olympics legacy) had to demonstrate how they would invest in digital technology to the benefit of local residents and businesses.

Finally, Sheffield's ‘Smart Lab' and Birmingham's iCentrum technology incubators offer support to start-up technology businesses that are locally based and are developing new products and services for smart cities.

Designing smart places for smart citizens

In all these cases, technology designers need to learn from urban design in order to create human-centric smart cities. The architect Kelvin Campbell's concept of “massive/small smart urbanism” can teach us how to combine the effects of top-down investments and policy with the capacity for bottom-up innovation that exists in people, businesses and communities everywhere. How can we create the capacity for what he calls “massive amounts of small-scale innovation”?

By making digital infrastructures accessible through the provision of open data interfaces and of open source software on cloud computing platforms - the digital equivalent of accessible public spaces and human-scale, mixed-use urban environments.

For smart cities to become better places, we need well-designed policies blended with well-designed technology. It's encouraging that, while there is still much to do, there are enough examples of successful smart cities around the world to show us how it can be done, and steer us towards a smarter future.



  • Smartening up Stockholm. Today, wireless technology increasingly crackles from classroom to boardroom. But even somewhere as advanced as Stockholm there is always more to do. The city's chief information officer, Ann Hellenius, tells us about delivering on digital
  • Wired up and fired up. Few cities have embraced the digital revolution as successfully as Kansas City. Its mayor, Sly James, tells us how technology is transforming public services and opening up new opportunities for his community today - and tomorrow
  • Digital dawn. It may not be obvious, but US policymakers have had an important role to play in the creation of today's digital era. But sometimes it involves stepping back rather than stepping up, suggests David Dean
  • Power to the people. Few countries have embraced the digital era as successfully as New Zealand. We talk to one of its government's key digital transformation leaders, Richard Foy,about how they've done it.
  • Computer says yes. Governments are increasingly reliant on digital technology to deliver public services - and Australia's myGov service is a potential game-changer, says Gary Sterrenberg
  • Online, on track? Miguel Carrasco looks at how policymakers can improve the delivery of digital services

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