This is the fifth and final post in a series about smart cities, based on some advisory work that I did last year for Cisco. You can read the first post here, the second one here, the third one here and the fourth one here.
The posts are based on the proposition that in the end, if the smart city idea is to be both interesting and genuinely transformative in a deep and sustained way, it should be about much more. And, at its heart, it should be about the relationship between people and the places in which they live and work.
As others have argued, smart cities should be “smart” because of the way they engage people and their relationships with the urban spaces they live in. They are not smart because of the technology, although the technology, especially the next wave of “internet of things”, artificial intelligence and machine learning, will be a foundation of what makes them smart.
They will be smart because they engage a set of bigger political, social, ethical and environmental opportunities and risks which fundamentally impact the way people experience cities for work, play, learning and politics
Smart cities:what’s the playbook for “next”?
The next phase of the smart city movement will draw on a playbook that brings together these elements:
- Leadership Unequivocal and persistent leadership that sets a distinct smart city direction, holds the space for the necessary investment, planning and experimentation and then holds the strategy to account in terms of impact and experience.
- Coherence A single point of executive leadership that is focused as much on the coherence of the overall smart city puzzle as it has to be on the design and execution of its many and proliferating individual pieces.
- Integrated strategy Developing a smart city strategy that gives equal weight, in terms of policy, investment and execution, to its different dimensions, including infrastructure and systems, services and transactions, governance and citizen engagement and participation. The strategy needs to be integrated across its economic, social, environmental, cultural and community engagement dimensions. A city is truly, deeply smart to the extent that each dimension is smart and the way they interact for an impact that is larger than the sum of their parts is also smart.
- Funding Putting together a team of skilled people who can address the funding, design and implementation tasks for the individual pieces of a smart city strategy.
- Convening New and sustained platforms for convening the many different voices across the city whose ideas, insights and preferences need to be heard and reflected in smart city strategies.
- Legibility A commitment to greater levels of legibility in the way the city deliberates, discerns and then decides on the big pieces of work implied in the smart city strategy and work program.
- Data and platforms Building new tools and platforms that make city data from government and other sectors more open and easily accessible to people, both through dashboards that track performance and impact and through other tools and platforms that people will invent to make the most of the data that is available (and, in the process, create new streams of data and knowledge that can be folded back into the common store of open and accessible city knowledge)
Implicit in this playbook in a series of propositions that will shape and influence both how smart city strategies are developed and how successful they can expect to be.
Who pays, and how?
A central challenge will be the development of new ways to raise the funding and investment needed to provision the smart city strategy.
Systems + empathy
Picking up on the work of Charlie Leadbeater, smart city strategies will increasingly play on the counterpoint between a traditional obsession with big systems – to provision critical functions like transport, mobility, work, energy, city-wide services – and a necessary obsession with “empathy”, essentially the quality of relationships within and between people and communities across the city.
“Creative cities depend on a kind of dark matter, something that must be there to make them work, but which cannot be observed directly. That dark matter is empathy, our capacity to connect with other people who are different from us, to find common ground and to engage in sharing and exchange. That is the basis for the collective genius of city life: collaboration, cooperation and civility”
Charlie Leadbeater The London Recipe
In the next iteration of smart cities, it is likely empathy-based platforms like sharing and collaborative economy services will become if not direct and complete replacements for some of the larger traditional transactional systems, then certainly important complements to them.
Picking up on the work of John Hagel, the “next” for smart cities will include a growing capacity for scaleable learning. This means the ability to more rapidly and effectively learn from experiments and innovations in different city functions and activities, many of which will happen at the edge and in smaller start-up networks and communities.
But learning is only part of the challenge. The other part is the ability to more quickly absorb the new insights and expertise born from the “scalable edge” into the mainstream centre. That is going to call for a different and sometimes challenging capability for cultural change and system redesign. There will be a premium on speed and intensity of purposeful change for a range of organisations and city systems for whom “slow and steady” have been the settled institutional reflexes.
Up until now, smart city strategies have tended to be fairly siloed and focused on a few areas of work that were not necessarily well connected or integrated. The focus tended to be on big agendas of growth, infrastructure and technology. To the extent that smart city strategies looked at other areas, they were distinct and largely disconnected.
The characteristic of smart city agendas now beginning to emerge in leading cities is their integration in the service of a single focus on common goals including growth, fairness and sustainability. This recognises the interplay between a focus on social, cultural and citizen engagement strategies and the ability to attract the investment and jobs that form such a central part of a city’s economic strategy.
Platforms and place
“Next” smart city strategies are likely to be much more concerned with the way in which their different strands become coherent through their impact on specific places and locations. That outcome is partly a function of the way in which services and experience are provisioned from fewer, larger and more open and shared platforms of information, knowledge and transaction.
If the range of city services, and other “public” services increasingly provisioned by the private sector or in the shared or collaborative economy, all use a smaller number of more integrated, open and common platforms, that is going to help to counter the instinct to fragment into collaboration-resistant siloes. It should reinforce in the ambition to create common streams of data and knowledge which, in turn, give practical form to the instinct for greater collaboration and sharing.
A persistent measure
In the end, the challenge for the smart city movement is to keep in mind that none of the particular issues it deals with matters as much as the ultimate impact they have, on their own and together, on the experience people have of the city.
It’s easy to be distracted by the big and complex discussions about different aspects of the smart city venture – financing new infrastructure, getting the policy settings right for affordable and quality housing, attracting new investment and sparking innovation to create jobs and growth, reducing congestion and designing new traffic management systems and technologies, making cities more resilient to economic and environmental disruption, attracting events and spreading access to culture and the arts for example.. It’s hard to avoid the trap of assuming they ARE the smart city project.
They are not. They are necessary pieces, for sure, but they are not the puzzle.
In the end, there is a single, persistent measure of success against which the evolving smart city movement should hold itself accountable – what is the impact of the way in which the pieces are designed, delivered and put together, on the experience of the city for its people and communities?