The Economist has just released this report on smart cities – “the real story of how citizens and businesses are driving smart cities.”
It seemed like a good excuse to put some of my own thoughts together on a topic whose flavoursome profile sometimes seems to outstrip both substance and impact. But a topic which nonetheless, as the relentless and rapid rise of urbanisation continues, remains important.
This short series of posts (this is the first of five) about smart cities is based on some work I did last year in my role as an advisor to Cisco’s smart cities program in Australia.
The posts set out some ideas which I’ve been developing for some time about the state of the smart cities debate here and around the world.
The smart cities movement has reached an interesting turning point.
Still hostage largely to the energies and interests of large technology companies (including Cisco, for whom I worked for 13 years, including on the cities and urban innovation agenda), the smart cities concept is beginning to break out into new and more interesting territory.
It’s not that technology isn’t a big part of the story. It is and will continue to be.
But 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, cultural, social, ethical and environmental opportunities and risks which fundamentally impact the way people experience cities for work, play, learning and politics.
Every city wants to be smart.
Two features of the smart city debate characterise its current state and likely trajectory.
One is that the debate is slipping the bounds of its technology beginnings.
The usual rule is that technology becomes more important the more invisible (and therefore pervasive) it becomes. That’s what is happening to the smart cities movement. It’s not that technology is not important. It’s more a case that the technology is now so central to how cities become truly, deeply smart that it is no longer the point.
The second characteristic is that from its relatively peripheral place on the edge of the bigger economic and social policy debates about growth, fairness and inclusion, the smart cities movement has assumed a central place on the policy agenda gripped by the rising imperative for jobs, resilience and innovation.
And of course, those two characteristics are connected.
As the smart city debate becomes more central, and cities assert their influence on national, and indeed global policy outcomes, becoming deeply (and invisibly) digital and completely connected has become the inescapable platform for their impact and influence.
It would be hard to find a city in the world, and certainly in Australia, that isn’t actively pursuing some form of “smart city” strategy.
But just as the smart city discussion has achieved almost saturation levels of political and community attention, it is morphing. After a promising and energetic burst of start-up enthusiasm, investment and experimentation, the smart city movement is pivoting.
And the reasons are clear.
What has been achieved so far is powerful and promising, but not enough to satisfy some of the increasingly important elements of larger, more complex but ultimately more satisfying smart city vision. At the same time, cities are trying to pull together a program of planning, investment and implementation that offers a more coherent and predictable pathway from where they are now to the kind of smart city they want to become.
As well, there is room for more creative experiments with the use of networked technologies and the culture of “open and connected”, which is the smart city foundation, to engage the human, as well as the institutional and physical elements of what makes a city somewhere people actually want to live, work, invest and spend time.
And there is still a way to go to close the loop between aspiration, action and outcome to build a more confident knowledge base about how smart city strategies translate into the impact on, and experience for, people and communities.
- Review elements of the promise and performance of the smart city movement
- Present a series of challenges facing its next phase
- Recommend some practical ways for cities to improve the speed, intensity and confidence with which they define and pursue their smart city aspirations.