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What is a smart city?

Sophisticated technology – with sensors, data mining, analytics – is growing exponentially and allowing us to fundamentally change the we connect and deliver services, among citizens, business and government agencies. Here’s a look at what we mean by smart cities and how some of the world’s leading cities are jumping into the future.

Not surprisingly, there is no commonly accepted definition or framework for determining a smart city.

Given the “smart” tagline, many people suggest that it’s all about technology, and to some degree that’s true; technology is an important enabler and has an important role to play in the operation and management of cities, for example smart transport, smart mobility, smart energy, smart buildings and so on.

But it’s much wider than that – it’s about understanding that the enablers of a smart city go beyond just digital technology. It’s about linking human and business capital (networks of people and communities) with digital technology. In other words, creating an ecosystem where people, business and government are interconnected and contributing towards a common vision to create a more productive, prosperous, efficient, liveable and sustainable city.

The UK-based Centre for Cities has sought to bring some clarity to the definition of a smart city under three categories – broad, data-driven and citizen focused.

The Smart Cities Council, a US-based organisation focused on creating a network of smart cities, has produced a Smart Cities Readiness Guide – The Planning Manual for Building Tomorrow’s Cities Today.

The guide provides a matrix across six key issues – planning, infrastructure, system operators, ICT investments, citizen engagement and sharing data – and has identified a series of smart city solutions for the problems of traditional cities. What is clear is that smart cities offer a number of effective solutions across these issues.

Evolution of smart cities

The evolution of smart cities over the past five or so years has witnessed three distinct phases according to Boyd Cohen, a leading expert in smart cities. Smart cities have evolved from being driven by technology companies to a government-driven and finally to a citizen-driven model.

The first phase of the evolution of smart cities was primarily driven by technology companies such as IBM and Cisco who encouraged technology solutions for a range of challenges confronting cities.

This phase was characterised, as Boyd points out, by “technology providers encouraging the adoption of their solutions to cities that were not really equipped to properly understand the implications or solutions or how they may impact their citizens”.

In effect, phase one was missing out on one key ingredient – how cities interact with their citizens.

Phase two centres on technology-enabled cities taking the initiative to be a smart city. In this phase, city mayors and administrators take the lead in determining the future of their cities. They focus on “technology solutions as enablers to improve quality of life”.

How they do it in Rio

One of the best examples of a city driving the move to become a smart city is Rio de Janeiro. After major floods and mudslides hit the city, the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro approached IBM to seek its expertise to create an integrated command centre to ensure the city had the tools for dealing with a major crisis.

The result: a state-of-the-art, 21st-century-intelligent operations centre that is transforming the way the city operates. This is a classic example of how visionary leaders can harness the power of technology to assist their cities become liveable, vibrant and sustainable communities.

Cities are realising that it is the users of cities – businesses and citizens – that are the key to creating a smart city.

Technology is just one of the enablers of smart cities. Phase three smart cities are therefore embracing citizen co-creation models. It’s all about citizen engagement and urban entrepreneurship.

As Boyd concludes, “Cities need to continue to embrace the innovative capacity of their residents who are able to detect needs before the city administrators can, and who can collaboratively work to fix the problems and improve the city with rapid, cost-effective innovations. Cities must move from treating citizens as recipients of services, or even customers, to participants in the co-creation of an improved quality of life.”

Here are some select highlights showing what the leaders in smart cities are doing around the world.

Download the Smart Cities – The Future of Cities ebook to read in its entirety.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam Smart City is a partnership between businesses, governments, knowledge institutions and the people of Amsterdam. It challenges these groups to suggest and apply innovative ideas and solutions to urban issues.

By fostering innovation, facilitating engagement with disruptive technologies, promoting efficient and effective government services, and acting as an advocacy group for open-data, open-government principles, Amsterdam’s smart city platform connects all of the city’s stakeholders through “smart” collaborations.

Barcelona

The 2015 Smart City rankings, released by Juniper Research, ranked Barcelona as the world’s leading smart city. It described Barcelona as “an exciting model of success from which others can learn, bolstered by strong environmentally sustainable initiatives”.

Barcelona’s BCN Smart City model is at the forefront of applying innovative solutions, harnessing information and communications technology, and co-ordinating information and services.

Barcelona has 24 programs with more than 200 projects in operation. The Urban Transformation Project’s City OS (a technological platform of services and solutions to help the council make decisions in real time) and Sentilo (an open, interoperable and expandable platform based on open-source software) are two key programs. One of the most socially positive projects is Telecare – a free service that provides a help-button device to more than 70,000 vulnerable citizens.

Rio de Janerio

Rio de Janerio has been recognised as a smart city, principally because of its state-of-the-art Intelligent Operations Centre. The IOC brings together the information and processes of more than 30 different departments in a single digital command-and-control system. The tools provide citizens with access to accurate information of what is happening in their city 24/7.

Mobility

Work is underway at Google and the traditional car companies Volvo, Daimler and GM to develop driverless cars.

However, a recent report from a US advocate group, The National League of Cities, entitled The City of The Future Mobility and Technology, which examined transport trends in 68 US cities, found:

  • widening gaps between innovation in the private sector, the preferences of citizens and the visions of city planners
  • just six per cent of city plans take into account the impact of driverless technology
  • a majority of cities are not preparing for new transportation innovations such as Uber or Lyft

Collaboration

Three examples of smart cities using digital platforms to actively engage with citizens can be found in Melbourne, Boston and Chicago.

Participate Melbourne is a community engagement portal which provides an online interface for the public to provide feedback across a range of diverse projects affecting the city.

Boston has a crowd sourcing project called Street Bump to collect data on the condition of its roads, providing the city with real-time information.

Open311 in Chicago is a website that allows citizens to report and track non-emergency issues such as potholes, broken street lights and vandalism in public spaces.

Tech hubs

Across cities, co-working spaces, or hubs, are springing up to allow tech start-ups to gravitate to a shared working environment that fosters collaboration.

The Sydney CBD and surrounding suburbs now have a number of tech hubs – Tank Stream Labs, Fishburners, VibeWire, HubSydney, the WorkBench and more recently Stone & Chalk, a fintech hub.

Fintech is one of the fastest growing sectors in the financial services industry globally. Hubs such as these will be critical if cities are to attract and retain talent in the digital era.

Smart Cities are gaining momentum in Australia

A number of cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Geelong have embarked on implementing “smart city” strategies.

The Lighthouse City – Adelaide

Adelaide is looking to establish itself as a leading smart city. In February 2015, Cisco designated Adelaide as its first smart and connected “Lighthouse City” (Cisco’s term for cities offering multiple technological solutions to address key challenges faced by that city) in Australia. Adelaide has joined other major cities including Barcelona, Chicago, Hamburg and Dubai in showcasing Internet of Things innovations.

Parramatta

The most recent city to jump on board is Parramatta. In August 2015, the Parramatta City Council released its Smart City Masterplan, which clearly sets out what the council wants to achieve: “…a Smart City that leverages the foundations of good urban planning, transparent governance, open data and enabling technologies that will underpin our position as a vibrant, people-centric, connected and economically prosperous city.”

Advances in technology are serving as a critical agent of change. Smart cities are leveraging technology across buildings, infrastructure and service delivery to provide creative solutions to the 21st century challenges.

However, smart cities are not just about deploying technology. People and places are at the core of cities. Successful smart cities of the future will be the ones that go beyond just being more automated and tech savvy to ones that can attract knowledge, skills and innovation capabilities, and can bring together transparent governance, quality urban planning, open data and effective collaboration to create quality urban environments which are more prosperous, efficient, liveable and sustainable.

Adrian Harrington is head of funds management for Folkestone. This article is an edited version of a white paper on smart cities.

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