What is a smart city and how is it different from our traditional notion of a city? There is no single definition for a smart city. The term itself is a moving target and every city is different.
That said, here are 10 ideas that can help us envision and define the smart city concept:
A smart city encourages people to walk, meet, talk and congregate on streets, in shops and in public spaces.
It’s a place where people interact easily, effortlessly and joyfully with each other and with their environment.
A smart city provides a matrix for random informal interactions, serendipitous meetings and spontaneous relationships.
It’s a place where people feel safe — not because they are surrounded by cops and cameras, but because the city’s cyber-physical infrastructure is designed intentionally for the purpose of creating an atmosphere of trust, community and shared responsibility.
Smart cities make it easy for people to travel from one neighborhood to another. They provide a mix of transportation solutions that reduce traffic congestion and diminish harmful emissions from vehicles.
They provide seamless broadband and Wi-Fi coverage. In a smart city, there are no dead zones and no dropped calls. Free charging stations are conveniently placed; no one worries about their phone battery dying.
Smart cities take energy efficiency to the next level; they generate more power than they consume. Smart cities grow their own food and manufacture products from recycled materials. They measure water usage by the drop and conserve natural resources by the ton. They’re miserly, but in a good way — in a smart city, nothing goes to waste.
Smart cities have solar-powered smart trash bins that signal when they’re getting full. That might not seem like a big deal, but smart trash bins save cities millions of dollars annually by reducing the costs of collecting garbage.
Smart cities have smart street lights equipped with sensors that spot potholes, measure traffic flow, listen for gunshots and help drivers find empty parking spaces.
They have smart systems that make it easy for citizens to obtain permits and licenses without having to stand in line at city hall. They remove the friction and complexity from processes such as paying taxes, registering children for school and finding health care for an aging parent.
Cities on a Hill
Smart cities are living laboratories. They are role models and exemplars. They are explorers and pioneers, navigating a course for the future of humankind.
Smart cities deal head-on with thorny modern problems such as transportation, energy efficiency, education, public safety, public health, citizen engagement, privacy, immigration, economic inequality, climate change and cyber security.
Those are problems that cannot be sidestepped, downplayed or delegated to higher authorities. In many instances, cities and towns have little choice but to step up and create their own solutions. They must do or die.
Smart cities are co-synchronous with “new localism,” a movement based on the belief that many problems are best solved at local levels. That might not seem like a particularly revolutionary idea, but it’s a significant departure from the 20th century maxim that big government is the answer to all problems, large and small.
Today, the methods of big government are under attack. There’s been a shift in thinking, especially in the realm of problem solving. In the decades following the Second War, urban planning methods reflected the era’s bias for command-and-control hierarchies.
Much of the urban planning from that era assumed that crowded streets were bad, that cars were good and that poor people should live in soul-crushing high-rise apartment projects. Post-war urban planning was epitomized by legendary figures such as Robert Moses and Le Corbusier, who sought to eliminate the natural chaos of city life and replace it with something more orderly and manageable.
That post-war approach emphasized grand scale and epic proportions. It assumed that if a project was important, it must be big — and if a project was big, it must be important. That kind of circular reasoning was used to justify decades of bad urban planning.
For cities, smallness is an asset. Cities are naturally limited in size, which turns out to be an advantage. They don’t have to solve problems on a huge scale. They don’t have to devise enormous projects. They can afford to think small.
A New Approach to City Planning
Smart cities are beneficiaries of a new method of urban planning that emphasizes collaboration, co-creation, crowd-sourcing and grassroots efforts. The new method combines bottom-up innovation with cross-functional insight to create entirely fresh and original solutions for complex problems. It focuses less on grand strategy and more on tactical solutions.
The new method is informed and influenced by software development techniques such as Agile and DevOps, and by design thinking, a process that starts by exploring the problems of people in the real world and working backwards to develop practical solutions. The new method uses rapid lightweight prototyping, pilot projects, pop-ups and virtual reality to evaluate, refine and continuously improve ideas before they’re launched.
The new method is firmly rooted in data science, which allows cities to rigorously test new ideas and predict in advance which are most likely to succeed in the real world.
Smart cities use data science to determine the size and location of pocket parks, playgrounds, sidewalk extensions, community gardens, pedestrian malls, bike paths and traffic circles. Instead of simply guessing where those amenities are needed, smart cities use data to generate predictive models — and then they test the accuracy of the models before moving forward.
Thinking Beyond Technology
Smart cities are enabled by modern digital technologies; that is a given. But technology alone doesn’t make a city smart. The technology must be fully integrated and deeply woven into the fabric of the city. It can’t be an afterthought or a thinly applied veneer. It must be an active component, thoroughly baked into the city’s infrastructure and inseparable from the daily experiences of city life.
Technology isn’t something bolted on at the last minute, it must be part of an overall solution designed to meet the needs of people. Imagining, designing, building and managing smart cities is an interdisciplinary effort requiring input from experts and stakeholders from multiple industries and economic sectors.
Smart cities follow the basic principles of design thinking and human-centered design, which prioritize the needs of people and use science to guide the development of projects. Smart cities favor neighborhood initiatives over grandiose master plans; they know the quality of life in a city depends on healthy streets, vibrant shops and a diversified economy.
Mike Barlow and Cornelia Lévy-Bencheton write about the intersection of technology and social change. This article is adapted from their new book, “Smart Cities, Smart Future: Showcasing Tomorrow.” It’s available from Amazon and in bookstores.
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