Smart City beyond the buzz

‘Smart City’ appears to be a key concept when it comes to building cities of the future. But it is not easy to understand what it is. It has something to do with ‘IoT’ (Internet of Things), with digital transformation, with resource management, with citizen engagement; and with many other things…

“Ask a hundred government officials, senior corporate executives or investors what a smart city is and you will probably get a different answer each time. We believe each city should define its own smart city.” (Osborne Clarke 2015)

In the past year I’ve been involved in several projects and learned a lot about how cities can become smart(er)… going beyond buzzwords and ICT.


Smart city – more than the sum of smart parts
Some cities use the label ‘Smart City’ to make their city sound more attractive or innovative. Sometimes they state ambitions but it’s hard to relate these to actual practices. Usually what is written about smart cities sounds rather abstract. And that is because cities are complex. There are so many things that need to be taken care of and all the different elements and activities influence each other. In my view, in a smart city, the city government adopts and applies ways to connect activities and people so that the city as a whole functions better, now and in the future.


Making clever connections to achieve ambitions
Looking at a city as a whole, politicians set ambitions for the longer term, such as becoming energy neutral, creating more jobs, increasing quality of life. Such ambitions involve efforts across many of the activities that take place in a city. Not only are there many aspects to take into account, there are also many stakeholders and opinions about how these ambitions may be achieved. Now if only we could connect these people in clever ways and make them work together to achieve ambitions…


Can we make the connections?
That’s the promise of digital networking: connecting people, systems and things in clever ways, using ‘ICT’, ‘sensors’, ‘data’, ‘intelligent tools’…
Unfortunately, at present, the systems and tools that are being used in city government are generally reinforcing a mentality and way of working in silos. If you have ever worked with or for a city government, then you know it tends to be split in departments. Each responsible for running a certain aspect of city life. Roads, buildings, parks, infrastructure, traffic & street lights, electricity networks, water, waste… And of course citizens: people who need work, care, transport, education, safety. Each department uses equipment designed for the purpose, computer systems and dedicated software. If only we could connect the systems in clever ways. Possibilities seem endless; for example, put sensors in streets and you could measure all kinds of things, it will give you ‘data’, another smart-city-buzzword. Data from sensors can give information about temperature, traffic density, light levels, etc, at a certain location in a street. By using that data, it is possible to improve services and systems that operate on the street.


To really get smart, connect the people
A city does not get smarter from just putting sensors or ‘smart tools’ in place and enable these to send information to computer systems. The actual smartness will come when people use the information to optimise some area of city life, e.g. think of improving the flow of traffic, the responsiveness of the police, the application of street salt, etc. For using data in clever ways, you need people to interpret the data and apply the insights in a sensible way. And those people may be working in different departments in the city government, each with their own goals and systems and ways of working. To complicate it further, they need to connect with citizens, and listen to their needs and their ideas, before developing new solutions that will impact the living environment.


Co-create across boundaries
If you have ever tried to get one department to work with another department, or with businesses, or other organisations, or if you’ve ever tried to involve citizens in city planning, then you know that this can potentially bring quite some benefits. But, it is a challenge – there will be obstacles, questions and resistance. This part of becoming a smart city has nothing to do with technology. It is a social and creative process where people come together to discover how they can achieve a positive impact together, beyond the boundaries of their own fields.

How can city governments co-create smart solutions across departments – and with citizens, organisations, companies – even though they are not set-up for doing this? That question will be addressed in part 2.

This article was  published by Liesbeth on LinkedIn