Smart cities – hype or reality?

Smart cities – hype or reality?

I have recently read several critical and sceptical articles and announcements in relation to smart cities, and I have to say that I do share some of that cynicism. Unfortunately in most the cases projects, pilots and technologies that are carried out in the name of smart cities are uncoordinated, not strategic, and in some cases do more harm than good in terms of my interpretation of smart cities (see below). They certainly are not done in any smart way.

For lack of a better name Smart City is, in my view, a concept aimed at generating a unifying strategy to create sustainable, liveable and economically viable cities – cities that will mainly be led through grassroots (bottom-up) democracy, where people are able to quickly and easily make contact, collaborate, and take action. The key element to this is collaboration between citizens, local councils, local stakeholders (healthcare, education, transport, utilities, etc) business and academia. This contrasts with the current unsystematic, silo-based developments that are still taking place in most cities.

Furthermore, each city is very different. Recently-built cities are totally different from many of the cities in Europe that have medieval structures, and the smart city outcome for each of them will be different. Cities also differ greatly by their very nature. Some are more industrial; some are port cities; there are cities built around finance; some concentrate on culture, tourism;  others might be agricultural centres, transport hubs and so on. It is important to first of all recognise what your city is, and then make that a core element of the vision for the city.

Whatever type of city you are in, greenfield is easier to address in smart city developments than brownfield; but brownfield might be the most critical part of the city that requires new smarts to make it/keep it sustainable, liveable and economically-viable.

Critical here is that the local community, citizens and local council, need to have a vision of what their city is and where they would like to take it in the future. It is essential to develop a smart city approach that is fitting for the development of their communities/cities. Without such a basic vision and strategy in place we end up with the current uncoordinated hopscotch approach.

The reason the word ‘smart’ is used is because the concept was largely driven by new technologies that have become available over the last ten to fifteen years – broadband, smart energy, smart phones, the internet, mobile apps and so on.  These will most certainly play a key role in facilitating smart city developments. Our love for these new technologies shows that people are happy to use technology in order to create a more sustainable, liveable and economically-viable place in which to live.

Cities around the world are already competing with each other, as they understand that their potential citizens want the city to address these issues. In almost all cases local politics are way ahead of national policies on issues such as sustainability, climate change, smart energy, job creation and innovation and this makes it far easier to address them in a local environment, where there usually is far greater political cohesion regarding the public interest and the public good.

By first addressing the public good technology can prove that it is delivering on what people want, and this should assist in creating trust in all elements of smart cities – for example, in organisation, management, collaboration and technology. We should start with technologies that improve the life of the individual citizen – technologies that improve things like their healthcare, education, sustainability, energy and communication needs; but unfortunately smart city projects are frequently based on what is best for the technology companies, driven by profit and shareholders value rather than the common good and without a strong and strategic oriented local council in charge, smart technology projects are often  implemented  in an  uncoordinated way, creating unwanted developments that are leading nowhere – failed projects, silo-based thinking and technologies that are harming the people. I call this ‘death by pilot’. Furthermore, most of the time the citizens are all but forgotten in the development of such plans and this creates resistance and a lack of trust.

By first addressing holistic strategies that are needed, and including the citizens in those processes before we start building we will end up with better outcomes. And slowly but surely such developments are happening. We are all learning and, yes, many mistakes have been made and criticism is warranted. But cities are learning from this and the leading ones are now becoming more strategic in their approach. They are taking a holistic view and they have learned how to work effectively with their citizens to ensure that they are achieving the right outcomes for them. This is of paramount importance in smart city work.

Paul Budde

Different but similar see also: An overhaul of political and economic structures is needed for AI and big data.


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