Smart Cities for Dummies

An article by DAN HOORNWEG (Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology):

I grimace when I see those ads to ‘Build a Smarter Planet’. It seems to be the planet was working pretty well before we started messing with it. But ‘Build a Smarter City’ – now that’s something I can get behind. Cities are humanity’s grandest creation. They reflect us, sometimes smart, sometimes not. Cities reflect our civilizations, and when working well cities are the most efficient way to help the poor, the fortunate and unfortunate, and the environment. And without a doubt, every city in the world would benefit from smarter design and smarter management.

There’s a bit of smoke and mirrors on some of today’s smart city claims. Selling more IT and sophisticated algorithms might help a few of the very fortunate cities. Building a smart-city suburb next to a very unsustainable city can yield important lessons but can also be a useful distraction. Being really smart about cities is improving basic service delivery to the 1 billion urban-poor now going without clean water, or the 2 billion without sanitation. And we need big-time smarts as we build cities over the next twenty years for an additional 2 billion residents – this time locking in energy savings and high quality of life for all.

At its core, a smart city is a welcoming, inclusive city, an open city. By being forthright with citizens, with clear accountability, integrity, and fair and honest measures of progress, cities get smarter. A smart city listens – and tries to give voice to everyone, and a smart city talks to other cities and is always learning. This is not a function of wealth. ‘Poor’ cities can be as smart as any city; however poor cities doing lots of smart things rarely stay poor.

A smart city has to be underpinned with good basic service provision. Reliable basic service provision for all is the base of the hierarchy of smart cities.

An important aspect of smart – or technologically advanced – cities is that as much as we shape technology, technology shapes us as well. Wired cities, cool municipal apps, open data platforms, and social media are changing us and the way we live in cities, and as this develops further there will be unintended consequences: good and bad.

Many books are written on smart cities, often highlighting high-tech ideas: like variable pricing for road tolls; efficient street lighting and building sensors; automated revenue collection, and ‘e-governance’. But many of these actions are expensive and usually available only to cities in high-income countries. There are just as many smart ideas for cities with less money. For example, people using SMS on their cell phones to pay fees; doubling up schools as community centers; establishing neighborhood support committees; providing mentors to troubled teenagers.

So what are some of the smart things cities can do to? Here’s my list of top ten action items: (i) ensure good communication between government and citizens; (ii) as much as possible pursue an ‘open information’ approach; (iii) ensure basic service provision for all – before spending on ‘big ticket’ items; (iv) look at health, education and basic service provision in an integrated way (they are all only as strong as the weakest member); (v) provide an environment where local businesses are welcome and can thrive, help provide employment; (vi) cooperate with neighboring cities and ‘higher’ levels of government; (vii) use all the local resources available in decision making and service delivery, e.g. universities, senior citizens, business community; (viii) welcome technological improvements in service delivery; (ix) award excellence in staff and community representatives – be honest, and open about shortcomings; (x) always try to build trust and respect.

A final thought on smart cities. Or maybe better stated leading cities. The world is facing enormous challenges today: climate negotiations stalemate, financial troubles in Europe, political gridlock in Washington, the ‘Arab Spring’, emerging voices in East Asia, economic stagnation and not nearly enough jobs, shortcomings on the Millennium Development Goals, and a billion people still in egregious poverty. These problems are largely the purview of national governments, but so far their track record is not encouraging. There are many reasons for this and local (city) governments are certainly not blameless, nor are urban residents. But it is not a question of blame – but rather of pragmatism and action. During the next decade smart cities will be defined mainly as those able to act within national and global constraints; those that work well with others, service the old and poor, and that try to provide a local environment nurturing to all. Doing so is smart.