The phrase ‘smart city’ conjures up an image of a utopian, glass-domed future-scape, complete with monorails, tall towers and impeccable landscaping.

Does this ideal suggest that all cities of the future will strive to look and behave the same? In our desire to create digital futures for our citizens, might we strip the personalities from the environments where we live and work?

Our involvement so far in smart city initiatives in Europe and the US suggests that such a scenario is unlikely in the short term. The reason is financial: city planners are already juggling to deliver on an array of worthy goals such as public safety, citizen wellbeing and traffic management, all of which relies upon a complex series of decisions and, indeed, compromises.

As a result, individual cities are tending to prioritise a subset of ‘smart’ capabilities that maximise short and medium term benefits. For example: 

  • Amsterdam has a focus on microgrids, linked to an ambitious CO2 reduction target
  • For Paris, the main imperatives are around car traffic and citizen participation
  • Barcelona has gone for economic development and innovation alongside energy savings 

We can see from these examples just how different the resulting cities will be. Barcelona’s priorities have worked to draw the young intelligentsia to the city, reviving street culture and night life in the process. Meanwhile, Paris may resolve some of its traffic issues such as daytime gridlock and noise, which is to be welcomed.

In the longer term, to ensure that this remains the case, the personality facets of the smart city should not be left as mere consequences of planning choices, but as strategic drivers to decision making. They should do more to strategically accentuate and differentiate the city’s ‘smart’ brand and character. 

Digial ecosystem management (DEM) can help ‘smart’ city planners tackle this head-on, the details of which were discussed in a recent DEM conference. Illustrating this well is Milton Keynes, a new town in the UK that has set criteria to promote its attractiveness to business, which are considerations critical to its long-term sustainability. This focus on monetisation and governance - core DEM principles - is a useful lesson for all city planners who want to maintain their city’s strong position in the global economy or compete in an increasingly international skills market. 

While planners face choices on what they want their cities to become, they have access to largely the same toolkit, in terms of the evolving platform of ‘smart’ capabilities now available. The stages required to make a city ’smart’ are very similar whatever and wherever the city may be: first to put the right infrastructure in place, then to build the right mechanisms for the transmission, aggregation and analysis of data. But such a platform enables the creation of services that can be designed according to the strategic goals of the city, be they publicly or privately funded.

Understanding the personality of the city — the image it wants to present to citizens and the outside world — should be seen as the starting point for decisions about what technology to deploy, where and how. In practical terms, this means reaffiming the nature of the city itself and feeding this as input to decisions about smart city strategy, architecture and design.

In these days of rapid technological change, it would be easy to define specific initiatives, such as those above, without reference to the personality of the city as a whole. However, the positive character of a city is a pre-requisite for assuring its future place on the broader national and international stage, a reality that federal governments, states and local authorities need to keep front and centre as they plan their smart city initiatives.

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