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When we say Smart City, what do we mean?

It’s now something of a buzz-phrase, though it never used to be. The terms returned thanks in part to high profile projects from companies like Alphabet (Sidewalk) and Microsoft (Bill Gates’ Belmont). That and the growing accessibility of technology.

Buzz or no buzz, making our cities the best they can be is important to a sustainable, livable future. But what does Smart City actually mean?

From my time in the Smart City space, I’ve seen people use the term in two ways.

Cities built smart

One, perhaps more ‘classic’ idea of a of Smart City is about design and planning – a city that’s built in a smart way. For clarity, I’ll call this the Efficient City.

What matters in an Efficient City is different for everyone, but there are some common themes. Low-impact infrastructure delivery is generally emphasised, as is efficient transport – although not everyone agrees on what efficient transport is.

Cities that are smart

The second definition of smart cities refers to cities that are smart – where the city actually thinks. Of course that ‘thinking’ is dispersed across lots of small processors installed into bricks, concrete, and steel. I’ll call this the Hi-Tech City.

The Hi-Tech City could feature everything from phone charging stations and public wifi, to road sensors and motion detecting street lights.

Which smart is the smarter smart?

Today most people associate Smart Cities with the Hi-Tech City concept. That’s partially thanks to the growing visibility of the Internet Of Things (IOT), cheap mobile internet to power the IoT, as well as the smart-home movement.

But this thinking isn’t always good for cities. At least not by itself.

No doubt, Hi-Tech Cities offer huge promise for the future. This ranges from the super sexy to the mind-numbingly boring, from game-changing importance to complete distraction.

A two by two matrix plotting the Smart City projects. The x axis measures importance, the y axis measures sexiness. Projects in Sexy and important include on-demande transport and self driving car research, while boring and important includes 5g networks, remote sensors, self driving car policy and transport modal shift.

If the sexy-distracting box is Facebook to planners and futurists, then the boring-important box is their homework.

Tech for tech sake is a mistake

When we build better cities – smart ones or otherwise – we need to use the right metric to measure success. You might notice most of the tools in the Important boxes above have something in common.

They’re all human-related. If something doesn’t have a human benefit, beit direct or indirect, then it just serves as a distraction from something more important. I admit, 5G networks and remote sensors take are a few steps from direct human benefit, but the rule generally holds.

Efficient Cities have been lucky to have this baked into them from the start. City-efficiency has always been about moving humans quickly and effectively.

But Hi-Tech Cities risk losing this focus, instead hi-tech solutions for their own sake, whether the problem they’re solving requires them or not.

Let’s design for humans

The good news is that most Smart City practitioners are on the same page when it comes to building cities. There are many standards by ISO and the EU, among others, that most folks involved in designing or building Smart Cities are working to.

The risk will come when the public focusses on Sexy-Distracting projects, at the mercy of politics, big personalities, or savvy marketers. These idea bubbles suck up the oxygen needed to fully engage with Sexy-Important and Boring-Important projects.

As such, here are the lesson to learn for Smart City Thinkers and Smart Citiyzens:

Smart City Thinkers:

Don’t lose focus on what’s important for what’s sexy – if you can’t get the priorities right then how can anyone else? Explain to anyone who’ll listen that it’s not about the tech itself – tech just gives us smarter tools to facilitate dumb solutions.

Smart Cityzen:

Don’t focus on the technology, and apply the people-first mindset to everything you think about. If you hear about a new Smart City Widget, consider whether it really makes our cities better for humans, or is just tech for tech sake. Also, make sure to share your insight with others.


Further reading (that I’ve summarised for you):

  • This article on Designing Buildings Wiki does a good job of talking through how we can measure the ‘smartness’ of a city. It doesn’t come to a single conclusion, but it makes a good case that the population of a city is only one factor for how smart it’s likely to be – and larger cities are not necessarily the best performers thus far. It suggests 100,000-150,000 people might be a ‘sweet spot’ for Smart City development.
  • For actual metrics to measure a Smart City by, you could look in a few places. A standard as good as any is found in the European Smart City Model. It uses six factors to measure how smart a city is; Economy, People, Governance, Mobility, Environment, and Living. The rest of the report is fairly convoluted, but those six factors are a good indicator for the sort of KPI’s we should be thinking about ranking Smart Cities on, rather than just how Hi-Tech they are.
  • This Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Trend Paper is a deep drive both on the specific technological trends they identify as key to the future. It’s fairly technical, but it’s an insight into the level of details engineers are working on the Smart City movement. It also identifies key components we may miss if we come from a non-technical background, like the significance of 5G networks and the physical network of IoT connected devices. It also keeps to the commendable theme of designing Smart Cities for humans first, rather than for tech first.