What exactly is a smart city?

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Saketh Garuda

The ‘smart city’ concept is still one that is mired with uncertainty and misunderstanding. While those working in this sector are steaming full speed ahead, a large proportion of the public remain unsure about what exactly the term ‘smart city’ means. This is a problem: smart city technology companies are largely leading the way in defining what the ‘smart city’ is, developing technologies that are changing the way our cities work, and the way we live our lives, as this very article is being written. Urban citizens and policy-makers therefore need to have the knowledge and understanding to not only be prepared for the impact that this technology is having, and will have, on our cities, but to actually contribute to defining the smart city, before it is defined for us. This will allow the people to decide not only how new technologies affect their everyday lives, and, in a more long-term sense, how we manage and structure society, but also allow them to direct what the end definition of a ‘smart city’ will be. Democracy is, after all, about having a voice; and this voice is dependent upon us understanding and being able to use the language of others, in this case the language of the smart cities sector. When it comes to smart cities, this means making sure that everyone understands the different kinds of technological innovation that are changing our cities — from autonomous robots (like ours!) to electric transport, to citywide sensor networks — and the advantages and disadvantages of them all. Only then can we begin to engage in the debate, and decide what we want the smart cities of the future to look like from a citizen-led approach that takes into account the needs of all.

So, for the first part of our ‘smart cities’ series, Eliport are going to be looking at the current definitions of the smart city, in order for us to gain a complete understanding of the varying perspectives on this concept; we will then take a look at the ways in which it is playing out across the world right now.

Smart cities are defined differently depending on who’s doing the talking. This is partly because smart initiatives vary by local area, city, region, country and continent. Plus, they can range from local citizen-led projects to overarching urban management solutions run by city councils, with a range of different stakeholders involved each time — from academic institutions, to local governments, to multinational corporations, to start-ups, to citizens. Corporate, data-driven definitions tend to focus on the economic innovation and growth offered to cities by new technologies. For example, McKinsey defined the term ‘smart city’ as referring “to the use of innovative technologies in complex urban environments to manage resources and infrastructure in a sustainable way and create opportunities for growth” in a recent report. Government and political organisations often have a more citizen-focused approach, where ‘smart’ does not always have to mean technological. For example the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)’s 2013 report defines the smart city as a ‘process’, rather than a fixed state of being or outcome, where the active participation of citizens is absolutely key. Other public sector leaders, such as Gil Peñalosa, understand the smart city as one where innovative initiatives change citizens lives for better. Crucially, these initiatives do not have to be ones that use new technologies, although they can be.

If we take these two perspectives together, we might propose a definition of the smart city as a metropole where a number of forward-thinking, innovative initiatives are successfully improving resident’s lives, usually, but not always, enabled through the use of new technologies. In other words, a city where technology, among other tools such as civic engagement, is being used to make urban systems — whether for utilities, sanitation, communication, transportation, or anything — more efficient and effective, in order to improve the lives of urban citizens.

‘Smart’ initiatives tend to be led through a mixed bottom-up and top-down approach. Top-down refers to smart city initiatives that are set-up and managed by the city council, often in conjunction with big private-sector companies, notably those in the technology and construction sectors. One of the most prominent top-down initiatives is the smart city mobility management platform, or the intelligent transportation system. These smart city ‘solutions’ involve gathering data from a network of sensors across the city (smart meters, CCTV cameras, and often these days, sensors placed on street lighting) and integrating it into an umbrella platform that can be used to manage city operations, especially transport, in real-time. This platform gives cities access to data through which they can generate insights and then make both immediate and more long-term changes to how the city is working. Other top-down initiatives include bike-sharing schemes managed by city councils, such as ‘Bicing’ in Barcelona or the infamous ‘Boris bikes’ in London, or smart street furniture with wifi and charging points, such as the designs by mmcité that are installed across the Czech Republic.

Bottom-up smart initiatives refer to those created by those on the ground: citizens. City mobility apps, such as Waze, which disrupt the traditional top-down relationship between transport provider and citizen, are an example of this kind of bottom-up approach. Other key examples are online civic discussion forums, such as the very successful ‘Better Reykjavik’, or crowdfunding sites that fund innovative projects (like ours!). Another example is the Colombian-created ‘Low Carbon City’ association, which principally works on tackling climate change through civic engagement, but has used the connective power of the internet to create a global movement. These initiatives, some involving technology more than others, allow citizens to have a voice in how their city is changing, whether through engaging in local community projects, posting suggested improvements for their local area online, or putting their money towards initiatives they believe will improve their lives through crowdfunding platforms.

As most cities have evolved over time, and already have their core infrastructures in place, it is difficult to construct a smart city from scratch. This is why in the majority of cities, especially those with a longer history, both top-down and bottom-up smart city initiatives rub shoulders with each other, producing an overall mish-mash of smart projects that are integrated into existing built environment and human infrastructures. Some companies and governments are trying to create ‘pure’ smart cities, which to them means cities with technological infrastructure in-built in their foundations. Already new ‘smart’ cities, such as Songdo in South Korea, Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, and Bill Gates’ smart Arizona city, are emerging, built with technology already embedded. These cities can ‘leapfrog’ ahead of existing cities in terms of smart technological innovation, as they do not have to consider existing infrastructures, and existing populations, when developing their technological networks and initiatives. However, this definition of the smart city is obviously a wholly technological one; other, older, cities with a range of established socially smart initiatives might arguably be ‘smarter’ than these new cities in the long-run. The new smart cities will, however, certainly will be very well-prepared for some of the technological innovations at the threshold of common usage — such as autonomous vehicles.

So, we could say that the common thread linking all definitions of the smart city is the use of innovative, maybe even ‘radical’, initiatives to solve some of the most pressing urban challenges of today. Many of these initiatives, given that we live in an increasingly digital world, will inevitably be new technologies. However, upon examining various definitions of the smart city, we can observe that the word ‘smart’ is not limited to the technological realm. A smart city is thus one where innovatory approaches, very often facilitated by emerging technologies, are woven into the fabric of the everyday to improve the lives of all. One thing you might have noticed is that we have failed to list what citizens themselves think about smart cities — only listing the perspectives of government and corporations. This is because there is not enough data out there telling us what citizens think, reinforcing the point that more people need to understand smart cities in order to participate in defining the concept. This is especially important within the context of generating ‘insights’, which urban policy-makers use to make decisions. If all of our insights are based on quantitative and sensor-based data alone, as is increasingly proposed by many smart city providers, or on the opinions of those running smart city initiatives, we may never find out exactly what citizens want from their cities, and therefore how to make cities ‘smarter’ in a more sustainable and human-centric way.

If you want to contribute to creating the smart cities of the future, give us your support and join us on what promises to be an incredible journey: https://www.startengine.com/eliport.

Stay tuned for next week’s article about autonomous robots! Or take a look at our publication for more articles on robots, tech ethics and smart cities…


Delivering an Autonomous Future

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store