How Smarter Cities Get Started

(Photo of The Cube in Birmingham by Elliott Brown)

I was delighted recently to be invited to join Birmingham’s new “Smart City Commission”. The Commission is meeting for the first time today, and leading up to it I gave some thought to what the common ideas are that are emerging from cities that are making progress with their “Smarter” transformations.

Many of the environmental, social and economic forces behind the transition to Smarter Cities are common everywhere; however, the capabilities that enable cities to act in response to them are usually very specific to individual cities. They depend on factors such as geographic location, the structure and performance of the local economy, the character of local communities, and the approach of leaders and stakeholders across the city.

The relationships between those stakeholders and communities are crucial. Cities may aspire to encourage economic growth amongst small, high-technology businesses; or to stimulate innovation in service delivery by social enterprises; or to switch to more sustainable patterns of travel and energy usage. To act successfully to achieve any of these aims, long and complex chains of connections between individuals need to work effectively, from city leaders, through their organisations, to community and business associations such as small business forums, neighbourhood communities, and faith groups, to individual companies, their employees and citizens across the city.

So how does it happen that this complex web of city systems can make cohesive progress towards such challenging objectives?

I’m not going to claim to have a complete answer, but I do think we can observe patterns in the behaviour of the cities who have made the most progress.

Does the city have a plan?

Cities already have plans, of course. In fact, often they have lots of plans – for the economy, for housing, for public service transformation, for marketing and for many other aspects of urban systems.

What is really required in a Smarter City context, though, is a single plan that captures the vision and means for transformation; and that is collectively defined and owned by stakeholders across the city; not by any single organisation acting alone. It needs to be consistent with existing plans within individual domains of the city; and in time needs to influence those plans to develop and change.

(Photo of Mount St. Helens from Portland, Oregon, by Keith Skelton)

Evidence supporting the importance of formulating such cross-city plans is growing. IBM’s work with the City of Portland is illustrating the deep and sometimes unexpected connections between city systems.  Elsewhere, Tim Stonor is a great advocate of the relationships between the physical organisation of cities and their social and economic character. IBM’s system, Tim’s work and that of the physicist and biologist Geoffrey West are all capable of making quantified predictions about the impacts of links within and between city systems.

A Smarter City plan needs to set out a vision that is clear and succinct, often expressed in a single sentence capturing the future that the city aspires to. That vision is usually supported by a handful of statements that summarise its impact on key aspects of the city – such as wealth creation, inclusivity and sustainability. Together these statements are something that everyone involved in the city can understand, agree to and promote. Sunderland’s “Economic Masterplan” is an example of a cross-city vision that is constructed in this way.

To make the vision deliverable, a set of quantified objectives against which progress can be measured are vital. In IBM as we work with cities to establish these measures, we’re learning that social, financial, environmental, strategic and brand values are all important and related. They could include improvements in education attainment; creation of jobs; increase in the GDP contribution by small businesses in specific sectors; reduction in carbon impact in specific systems or across the city as a whole; improvements in measures of health and well-being; and may include some qualitative as well as quantifiable criteria. It is against such objectives that specific programmes and initiatives can be designed in order to make real progress towards the city’s vision.

In this way a roadmap of activity aligned with a city’s transformation objectives can be laid out. It’s important that this roadmap includes a mixture of long and short-term projects across city domains; and in particular that it includes some “quick wins” – in attempting to work in new partnerships to achieve new objectives, nothing builds confidence and trust like early success.

Does the city have an effective stakeholder forum?

Once stakeholders from a city ecosystem have come together to define a vision and a plan to achieve it, it’s vital that they maintain a regular and empowered decision-making forum to drive progress. The delivery of a Smarter City plan relies on many separate investments and activities being undertaken by many independent individuals and organisations, justified on an ongoing basis against their various short-term financial obligations. Keeping such a complex programme on track to achieve cohesive city-level outcomes is an enormous challenge.

Such forums are often chaired by the city’s local authority; and they often involve representatives from local universities who act as trusted advisors on topics such as urban systems, sustainability and technology. They can include representatives from local employers, faith and community groups, institutions such as sports and retail centres, and trusted partners in domains such as technology, transport, city planning, architecture and energy. The broader the forum, the more completely the city is represented; but these are “coalitions of the willing”, and each city begins with its own unique mix.

In fact, a formative event or workshop that brings such city stakeholders together for the first time, is often the catalyst for the development of a Smarter City plan in the first place.

Is the city community acting together?

(Photo of the crowd at Moseley Folk Festival, Birmingham, by Pete Ashton)

It’s impossible to understate the importance of individual people in making cities Smarter. The functioning of a city is the combined effect of the behaviour of all of the people within it; and Smarter City systems will not change anything unless they engage with and meet the needs of those individuals.

The Knight Foundation’s excellent work on the “Information Needs of Communities“, for example, highlights the importance of engaging deeply with communities to understand the information needs of the individuals within them, rather than providing generic information platforms for cities as a whole. Where such information platforms do succeed, it is because their delivery and operations are focussed on specific areas identified as priorities in consultation with communities.

Community and faith groups are tremendously important in this process, as they can bridge between institutions such as Councils and employers and individuals in all the communities of a city, including those that face the most significant challenges. Every city has communities that struggle to access information, services and opportunities; and communities that are less engaged in the decision-making and consultation processes that lead to such things as Smarter City plans.

In Sunderland, the City Council has placed computer access points in around 40 “e-village halls” (see short articles on the Council’s website here and here). These are often facilities owned and run by community associations, and provide a trusted environment in which members of local communities can help each other access digital information and services. The city has a strong tradition of social enterprises  working in these communities; Sustainable Enterprise Strategies offer advice, facilities and support to such organisations from their new “Container City” facility.

These networks of people, organisations and infrastructure are vital assets that support Sunderland’s transformation objectives, particularly as the city delivers its new Cloud computing platform. They are a good example of the way a city can bring individuals, communities, organisations and technology together in support of common aims.

It’s a tremendous honour for me to have been asked to join Birmingham’s Smart City Commission . I’ve lived more than half my life in the city; it’s where I finished my education and started my career and family. So the chance to contribute to its future thinking is a personal privilege as well as a professional one. The commission has drawn together an incredible collection of expertise from across the city and beyond; I hope we can rise to the challenge of keeping Birmingham on course to play as prominent a role in the Information Revolution into the future as it played in the Industrial Revolution of the past.

About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, the global engineering company. Previously, I was the UK, Middle East and Africa leader of the Digital Cities and Property business for Arup, Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK’s largest engineering and infrastructure services companies and part of the international Ferrovial Group, and before that IBM UK’s Executive Architect for Smarter Cities.

17 Responses to How Smarter Cities Get Started

  1. Saibal D. Chowdhury says:

    Enjoyed reading your block- there are some good observations and excellent points that I agree with, yet I have problems with the approach IT firms are taking which I think is a bit (if not all) outdated – For instance the Instrumented, Interconnected, Intelligent model which is great at a tactical operational level but does not fit in when one is looking at problems at the apex. Issues like unemployment, poor infrastructure, lack of investments , revenue, governance etc.

    Sadly, “Smart Cities” is fast becoming a platform for all kind of companies peddling prosperity – each with a different view point and understanding of the situation. Of course I am impressed with IBM but to work with IBM, the smart thing to do is to know when to or at what point to engage IBM or for that matter any technology firm.

    To end this note , I would like to add what I have learnt working on projects past two years is that contemporary urban projects demand a new kind of synthetic imagination – a new form of practice where landscapes, architecture, planning, economics, ecology, engineering, technology, social policy, and political process are understood and coordinated as an interrelated field.


  2. rickrobinson says:

    Hi Saibal, 

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and actually I would agree with your last point. I spend (much) more of my time working to understand city communities with social scientists, planners, economists and other urban domain specialists than I do working on technology with technologists. There are exciting developments in technology that provide new capabilities that cities can exploit; but unless we properly understand city systems across the domains you’ve described, the technology is not effective. 

    My core expertise is in technology; but part of the amazing opportunity working in this space has offered me recently is the chance to collaborate in exactly the sort of multi-disciplinary activities you’ve described. It’s only by doing that that we really identify how technology can add value – and believe me that none of our customers buys anything from us if they aren’t completely convinced that that value can be delivered!




    • Saibal D. Chowdhury says:

      Rick, your blogs and writings demonstrate clearly that you understand cities. Technology has its limitations but it is a great agent of change and transformation. That is as exactly the point of differentiation, as you wrote in one of your articles comparing animal’s limitation to change their cardiovascular system and cities that can become smart. Interestingly we both share similar work (just that in our case the end solution is investment programming for the cities). We design the solution as assets and collaborate with institutional investors to sell them to developers. Tim stoner’s work is very inspiring. Typically, our technical work begins with Space Syntax and Isochrone Analysis. We are now working on translating that to a 3D spatial digital Integrated Resource simulation model of the city to do a “what-if” simulation of the city. This is show that the new plan makes the city sustainable. Our mantra: “Smart Cities are Sustainable Cities”

      Actually we tried hard to collaborate with IBM but our currents projects seem to be out of their focus. They prefer to come in once the investment programming is over, feasibility analysis is done and solutions are identified. I met with Guru Banavar in Singapore early this month. I would like us to keep in touch.


      • rickrobinson says:

        Hi Saibal,

        This is really fascinating, and I’d really like to understand more about what you do. I will get in touch through Linked-In,




  3. tbently says:

    This is a really interesting article. I think it is definitely important to remind ourselves that, especially in this interconnected and often fragile world, ‘separate’ fields such as architecture, ecology, transport, energy and economy don’t really exist at all as each impacts, or can impact, on the others.

    Rick, Saibal- what I admire about IBM is how they seem to be considering technology as being the one field that IS separate. IBM seem to be highly aware that technology is gaining the power to be harnessed and applied to all fields to allow us to prosper in all areas, and that prosperity in one area usually means prosperity in another. I think that is my interpretation of what IBM mean by a ‘smarter city’. Would you agree?

    I’m doing an MSc. in Business Technology, and one day would love to work for a company like IBM. The consulting they provide, and the technology they have created throughout their history makes them genuinely believable when they talk about changing the planet for the better!


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