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Jon Glasco4. February 20198 min read

How Universities Add Value in Smart City Innovation

Urban innovators with smart city aspirations rely on university knowledge and resources when addressing complex issues. Through access to research and thought leadership on urban challenges, smart cities benefit from partnerships with universities.

The Changing Face of Urban Innovation

When contemplating the need for urban improvement, cities once looked for efficiency gains, cost savings, and incremental, low-risk innovation to enhance local government operations. Today, urban residents demand much more from city leaders. Wicked urban problems such as homelessness, lack of affordable housing, pollution, congestion, inequality, social and digital exclusion, and environmental threats require bold thinking and a new paradigm in public sector innovation - made possible through collaboration with universities. 

According to Mikael Edelstam, CEO, Miljostrategi AB, "a collaborative approach works with smart city endeavors. City administrators, universities, businesses, and even citizens themselves have to work together. This allows them to understand one another, draw out competencies and learn via real cases."

At the 2018 Smart City Expo in Barcelona, Spain, universities and research institutes from Austria, Germany, Norway, Spain, and the UK exhibited their involvement and progress in smart city research. The Norwegian University of Stavanger, for example, provides research in support of the EU-sponsored Triangulum project which yields benefits through cooperative development of sustainable energy solutions, e-mobility, cloud computing technology, and a standardized ICT architecture for integration of smart city systems and services. In a panel discussion at the Expo, Hany Fam, EVP, Enterprise Partnerships MasterCard, emphasized the importance to cities of developing a "digestible narrative and thought leadership environment which includes academia."[1]

A good example of thought leadership from academia comes from the University of North Carolina (UNC), which provided smart city analytics in the innovative region known as the Research Triangle. A UNC report presented an in-depth, comparative analysis of four cities in the region: Chapel Hill, Durham, Cary, and Raleigh. UNC researchers "used the CITYKeys metric system, a system developed to evaluate smart city projects in Europe" […] and "results were then compared to each municipality's long-range planning documents to gauge how effectively the city is meeting its stated goals." These cities were recently named among the 25 most innovative cities in the U.S.

how universities add value in smart cities blog

Opportunities for Smart City-University Partnerships

City leaders attending a recent Harvard TECH Innovation Accelerator event concluded that "cities have opportunities to form great partnerships based around the data they have collected. They should look to collaborate with universities by making data available so that researchers and professors can research and help solve problems in the community." By working in cooperation with cities, universities can shape urban design, unlock the value of urban data, and transform ideas into innovative public services. Robin Hambleton, professor at the University of the West of England, believes "universities are the sleeping giants of civic leadership and innovation."

Smart city advancement is reminiscent of other eras when revolutions in knowledge, technology, and business models led to major changes in industry, society and urban life. In theory, such revolutions occur in similar patterns and cycles. Now that we are in the early stage of a smart city cycle with a vast array of emerging technologies and innovations, partnerships with universities provide opportunities for urban planners and civic stakeholders.

  • In the Netherlands, the city of Amsterdam - in partnership with the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Amsterdam University of Applied Science - is working toward a civic engagement platform designed to co-create urban logistics and transport solutions.
  • In Poland, the Lublin University of Technology cooperated with the city of Lublin to conduct research on the benefits of photovoltaic cells in public transport vehicles.
  • In France, the city of Saint-Quentin works closely with the University of Southampton in the Smart City Innovation Framework Implementation (SCIFI) project and relies on the university to provide an "innovative process and procurement policy to engage with the market, identify a solution provider who can develop an interoperable open data solution and find ways to integrate and reuse open urban data."[2]

In addition to technology-driven innovation, universities contribute to smart city planning through research on the societal impact of urban trends and proposed projects for solving urban problems. "A renewed focus on localism, social mobility and skills has led to a growing realization universities play a key role in local development." Universities offer thought leadership needed by decision-makers to understand the risks of smart city policies and decisions. In a paper on smart urbanism, researchers at UvA and the University of Twente said "emphasizing local contingencies […] urges questions such as how smart policies strengthen, weaken or replicate existing patterns of inequality and exclusion."

As described in an EU policy paper on the value of research, "innovation is today recognized as taking place within an ecosystem [ … ] This perspective has wide implications for the institutional and regulatory environment in which research and innovation take place" and underscores the importance of coordinated research "directed toward societal challenges and complex systems."

The OECD asserts there are four main facets of public sector innovation:

  • Enhancement-oriented—with emphasis on achieving higher efficiency and upgrading current practices
  • Adaptive—a form of bottom-up change driven by new knowledge, changes in the external environment or innovation by other entities
  • Mission-oriented—where innovators have a clearly defined objective or desired outcome (although specifics of how to achieve it may be poorly understood) 
  • Anticipatory—involving exploratory thinking, engagement to confront emerging issues, creation of new models and commitment of resources to investigative work (often with a high degree of uncertainty)

Mission-oriented and anticipatory innovation offer the greatest potential for universities to discover urban solutions and clarify the societal impact of urban trends and smart city decisions.

Consider the challenge of designing interoperable networks and platforms for citizen-centric services. Clarifying the advantages of smart city pilot projects versus soft launch of new services. Monitoring the environment through geoinformatics. Reinventing urban space to improve safety. Evaluating the policy issues of disruptive business models. Researching the mobility implications of on-demand, autonomous vehicles. These are examples of challenges for cities to address in cooperation with universities.

What about relying on a university partner to test and evaluate trial services and prototypes prior to large resource commitments?

Bart Gorynski - Managing Partner at bee smart city“A university campus is like a small city. It includes housing, transportation, parking, utilities, and IT infrastructure. It contains libraries and book stores, dining centers, social activities, culture, and sports facilities. This makes a university smart campus an advantageous location for testing smart city initiatives
, states Bart Gorynski, Managing Partner at bee smart city.

Other examples of smart city-university collaboration

In the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania metropolitan area, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is a recognized leader in conducting research on the most urgent demands in modern cities. CMU's Metro21 Smart Cities Institute serves as an innovation-driven resource that brings together citizens, technologies, urban strategy, and policy to improve quality of life. CMU's multidisciplinary approach involves collaborative research, testing and deployment of smart city solutions. "As a founding member of the MetroLabs Network, CMU works closely with other city-university partnerships to scale effective solutions, accelerate best practices, and advance the understanding of urban science."

Serving as a model of smart city solutions, CMU "is partnering with the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and other government agencies, to incubate a range of technological systems to improve safety, enhance mobility, promote efficiency, and address pollution in the environment." CMU developed and deployed traffic control software enabling automatic adjustment of traffic signals to respond to congestion in real-time and decrease commuting times by 25 percent. Last year, CMU received the prestigious Le Monde Smart Cities Global Innovation Award in recognition of its innovative traffic signal control system.

In Zaragoza, Spain, the University of Zaragoza (UNIZAR) conducts research on how to apply civic technology to develop and improve public services:

  • Creation and management of urban living labs
  • Creation of distributed sensor networks and public databases
  • Development and promotion of citizen-centric services, social networks and mobile applications

UNIZAR is also involved in e-health research designed to enhance quality of life by integrating e-health services and mobile devices, monitoring vital signs and medication management, and delivering telecare services for patients with chronic diseases.

In Austria, the city of Salzburg relies on its university and research ecosystem to generate knowledge which contributes to smart city development. One of the city's strategic objectives is to establish Salzburg as a city of knowledge. "Knowledge is the most important raw material [ …] and creates and safeguards jobs for the future, ensures innovation and a corresponding quality of life."
Salzburg is known worldwide for its geoinformatics competence. The Department of Geoinformatics (Z_GIS) at the University of Salzburg is a well- established center of research and knowledge generation. Z_GIS conducts basic and applied research and provides technology tools for "landscape and urban analysis, water and environmental management, crisis and conflict prevention in light of sustainable development." Josef Strabl, Head of Department, Z_GIS states that "drivers for progress increasingly emerge from demands in daily life, from societal and environmental issues. […] By connecting technology and methods in the virtual world with real-world problems, the relevance of geoinformatics is established."


City leaders, urban innovators and university researchers are taking an active role in confronting challenges which, in the recent past, were addressed by national governments. Through collaboration with universities, smart cities have opportunities to look beyond incremental changes and take pioneering steps toward creating urban innovation ecosystems, understanding smart city alternatives, and developing innovative and equitable urban solutions to enable high quality of life.

For cities, universities, startups and solution providers: Join the leading global smart city network and community to explore hundreds of solutions and to share your solutions to increase your visibility. Facilitate new opportunities for collaboration and extend your smart city network by connecting with thousands of other smart city enthusiasts and experts from across the globe.


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[1] Conference event: Multistakeholder Innovative Ways of Collaboration, Smart City Expo World Congress, Barcelona, Spain, November 14, 2018
[2] Personal communications with Alexandre Chaffotte, Chargé de mission innovation, Ville de Saint-Quentin, December 7, 2018

Image Sources:
iStock, ID: 858462408, Credit: PeopleImages / iStock, ID: 905588054, Credit: Wenjie Dong


Jon Glasco

Jon Glasco is a freelance consultant and writer focused on innovation in smart cities and smart urban mobility. He has experience in executive and consulting roles in the telecommunications, mobile operator, public transport, government and professional service sectors. Jon holds an MBA and Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering.