Five roads to a Smarter City

(Photo of Daikoku junction by Ykanazawa1999

Recently, I discussed the ways in which cities are formulating  “Smarter City” visions and the programmes to deliver them. Such cross-city approaches are clearly what’s required in order to have a transformative effect across an entire city.

However, whilst some cities have undergone dramatic changes in this way – or have been built as “Smarter” cities in the first place as in the case of the famous Masdar project in Abu Dhabi – most cities are making progress one step at a time.

Four patterns have emerged in how they are doing so. Each pattern is potentially replicable by other cities; and each represents a proven approach that can be used as part of a wider cross-city plan.

I’ll start at the beginning, though, and describe why cross-city transformations can be hard to envision and deliver. Understanding why that can be the case will give us insight into which simpler, smaller-scale approaches can succeed more easily.

What’s so hard about a Smarter City?

Cities are complex ecosystems of people and organisations which need to work together to create and deliver Smarter City visions. Bringing them together to act in that way is difficult and time-consuming.

(Photo of Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

Even where a city community has the time and willingness to do that, the fragmented nature of city systems makes it hard to agree a joint approach. Particularly in Europe and the UK, budgets and responsibilities are split between agenices; and services such as utilities and transport are contracted out and subject to performance measures that cannot easily be changed. Agreeing the objectives and priorities for a Smarter City vision in this context is hard enough; agreeing the financing mechanisms to fund programmes to deliver them is even more difficult.

Some of the cities that have made the most progress so far in Smarter City transformations have done so in part because they do not face these challenges – either because they are new-build cities like Masdar, or because they have more hierarchical systems of governance, such as Guangzhou in China. In other cases, critical challenges or unusual opportunities provide the impetus to act – for example in Rio, where an incredible cross-city operations centre has been implemented in preparation for the 2014 World cup and 2016 Olympics.

Elsewhere, cities must spend time and effort building a consensus. San Francisco, Dublin and Sunderland are amongst those who began that process some time ago; and many others are on the way.

But city-wide transformations are not the only approach to changing the way that cities work – they are just one of the five roads to a Smarter City. Four other approaches have been shown to work; and in many cases they are more straightforward as they are contained within individual domains of a city; or exploit changes that are taking place anyway.

Smarter infrastructure

Many cities in the UK and Europe are supported by transport and utility systems whose physical infrastructure is decades old. As urban populations rise and the pace of living increases, these systems are under increasing pressure. “Smarter” concepts and technologies can improve their efficiency and resilience whilst minimising the need to upgrade and expand them physically.

(Photo of a leaking tap by Vinoth Chandar. A project in Dubuque, Iowa showed that a community scheme involving smart meters and shared finances had a significant effect improving the repair of water leaks.)

In South Bend, Indiana, for example, an analytic system helps to predict and prevent wastewater overflows by more intelligently managing the existing infrastructure. The city estimates that they have avoided the need to invest in hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades to the physical capacity of the infrastructure as a result. In Stockholm, a road-use charging system has significantly reduced congestion and improved environmental quality. In both cases, the systems have direct financial benefits that can be used to justify their cost.

These are just two examples of initiatives that offer a simplified approach to Smarter Cities; they deliver city-wide benefits but their implementation is within the sphere of a single organisation’s responsibility and finances.

Smarter micro-cities 

Environments such as sports stadiums, University campuses, business parks, ports and airports, shopping malls or retirement communities are cities in microcosm. Within them, operational authority and budgetary control across systems such as safety, transportation and communication usually reside with a single organisation. This can make it more straightforward to invest in a technology platform to provide insight into how those systems are operating together – as the Miami Dolphins have done in their Sun Life Stadium.

Other examples of such Smarter “micro-Cities” include the iPark industrial estate in Wuxi, China where a Cloud computing platform provides shared support services to small businesses; and the Louvre museum in Paris where “Intelligent Building” technology controls the performance of the environmental systems that protect the museum’s visitors and exhibits.

(Photo of the Louvre exhibition “‘The Golden Antiquity. Innovations and resistance in the 18th century” from the IBM press release for the Louvre project)

Improving the operation of such “micro-cities” can have a significant impact on the  cities and regions in which they are located – they are often major contributors to the economy and environment.

Shared Public Services

Across the world demographic and financial pressures are causing transformative change in public sector. City and regional leaders have said that their organisations are facing unprecedented challenges. In the UK it is estimated that nearly 900,000 public sector jobs will be lost over 5 years – approximately 3% of national employment.

In order to reduce costs whilst minimising impact to frontline services, many public sector agencies are making arrangements to share the delivery of common administrative services with each other, such as human resources, procurement, finance and customer relationship management.

Often these arrangements are being made locally between organisations that know and trust each other because they have a long history of working together. Sharing services means sharing business applications, IT platforms, and data; as town and village councils did in the Municipal Shared Services Cloud project.

As a result shared IT platforms with co-located information and applications are now deployed in many cities and regions. Smarter City systems depend on access to such information. Sunderland City Council are very aware of this; their CEO and CIO have both spoken about the opportunity for the City Cloud they are deploying to provide information to support public and private-sector innovation. Such platforms are an important enabler for the last trend I’d like to discuss: open data.

Open Data

(A visualisation created by Daniel X O Neil of data from Chicago’s open data portal showing the activities of paid political lobbyists and their customers in the city)

The open data movement lobbies for information from public systems to be made openly available and transparent, in order that citizens and entrepreneurial businesses can find new ways to use it.

In cities such as Chicago (pictured on the left) and Dublin, open data platforms have resulted in the creation of “Apps” that provide useful information and services to citizens; and in the formation of startup companies with new, data-based business models.

There are many challenges and costs involved in providing good quality, usable open data to city communities; but the shared service platforms I’ve described can help to overcome them, and provide the infrastructure for the market-based innovations in city systems that can lead to sustainable economic growth.

Let’s build Smarter Cities … together

All of these approaches can succeed as independent Smarter City initiatives, or as contributions to an overall city-wide plan. The last two in particular seem to be widely applicable. Demographics and economics are driving an inevitable transformation to shared services in public sector; and the open data movement and the phenomenon of “civic hacking” demonstrate the willingness and capability of communities to use technology to create innovations in city systems.

As a result, technology vendors, local authorities and city communities have an exciting opportunity to collaborate. The former have the ability to deliver the robust, scalable, secure infrastructures required to provide and protect information about cities and individual citizens; the latter have the ability to use those platforms to create local innovations in business and service delivery.

At the 3rd EU Summit on Future Internet in Helsinki earlier this year, Juanjo Hierro, Chief Architect for the FI-WARE “future internet platform” project and Chief Technologist for Telefonica,  addressed this topic and identified the specific challenges that civic hackers face that could be addressed by such city information infrastructures; he included real-time access to information from physical city infrastructures; tools for analysing “big data“; and access to technologies to ensure privacy and trust.

Cities such as Sunderland, Birmingham, Dublin, Chicago and San Francisco are amongst those investing in such platforms, and in programmes to engage with communities to stimulate innovation in city systems. Working together, they are taking impressive steps towards making cities smarter.

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.

19 Responses to Five roads to a Smarter City

  1. Peter Cripps says:

    Hi Rick, I like this ‘patterns for smarter cities’ type approach. There must be a pattern language for smarter cities out there and, I guess, there are probably a good few anti-patterns (how not to build a smarter city) as well! Maybe SimCity could be used as a modeling tool for capturing such patterns? One of the anti-patterns I would like to see addressed is the negative impact of data being collected on citizens, especially surveillance type data from video cameras etc. One of the criticisms of the London 2012 Olympics has been the additional security that has a) been implemented more widely than the event locations themselves and b) may be left in place even after the games have finished.


  2. rickrobinson says:

    Hi Pete,

    Thanks for your comments. I know of some work within IBM on patterns for Smarter Cities; I have to confess I’m less familiar with what’s in the public domain, whether from IBM or from others. But I certainly agree with the sentiment that patterns and anti-patterns are a terrific way to capture knowledge and experience and make it re-usable by others. In fact there’s a certain irony in the fact that the idea of patterns began with Christopher Alexander’s work in urban planning, spread to the technology industry where we both encountered it, and now here we are discussing patterns in the context of cities again!

    Those are great points about security and information too. There’s a real difference in our expectation of how data is treated depending on whether we have knowingly made it available for a specific purpose – e.g. by participating in crowdsourcing – or whether it is measured by some system without our active involvement – e.g. by a CCTV camera or the GPS sensor in our phone.

    I’ve had very interesting discussions with some Councils, for example, about social media analytics. On the one hand, Councils are attracted by the possibility of using the technology to gain insight into the public perception of Council services and the cities and regions they are responsible for. On the other hand, they are wary of doing anything that the public would perceive as eavesdropping.

    A colleague of mine recently listed some of the unintended consequences of open data and automation that we’ve already seen; one was the “flash crash” of 2010 when the New York stock market dropped 9% and then regained its value within minutes. It’s described on wikipedia (although in an article containing disclaimers for accuracy and balance) –




  3. Saibal D. Chowdhury says:


    Another excellent one from you – a general roadmap to smart cities that mayors’s office will find useful. Patterns are very interesting and product companies have successfully used it for many years in developing new products – consumer electronics, fashion, architecture etc. Using them in the urban context may be tricky as territorial , social and political contexts varies a lot across nations and regions.

    Digressing from the topic, I have a criticism point to make about most t smart city talk hovers around technology – not wrong but it is the easier of the many challenges we currently face. More daunting ones city mayors face is investment programming / modeling. For instance, if the best solution is to install, at 1000 spots in a city, a cutting edge spatially integrated video analytics solution that is way over the financial capacity, how are you going to go about procuring it ?

    I would love to hear from you some examples of cases where a perfect technology solution finds a creative investment/financing model



  4. rickrobinson says:

    Hi Saibal,

    Thankyou for your kind comments! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think you make a great point about the changing urban context across geographies. In fact, I think it relates to your last point – the sort of financial vehicles that may support an investment in – for example – Smarter transport will be very different in different cities and countries, depending on factors such as whether different transport modes (or even individual routes) are contracted out to private sector providers, and what the terms of those contracts are. Cultural factors will play a role too of course; for example some city populations in the UK have voted against road-use charging in referenda; whereas in Stockholm a 2006 referendum voted in favour of such as scheme after a 6 month trial.

    In several of my previous posts on this blog I’ve discussed the idea of Smarter City systems as marketplaces, highlighting examples in food production, energy production and transport. I do think this is the key to financing many Smarter City initiatives; markets create money flows from which market operators can extract revenue; predictions of future revenue can be used to create the case for investing in the market infrastructure in the first place. I know of one case of a coalition of cities preparing to approach international financing markets on this basis for an ambitious Smarter City transformation.

    In other cases, local, national and international government bodies may need to invest to provide enough basic infrastructure for market forces to become effective. A recent example is Birmingham City Council’s recent successful bid to win exemption from European Union “state aid” laws to fund the rollout of superfast Broadband connectivity across the city. This is particularly important in areas of low economic activity that are the intended focus of regeneration programmes, and in which private sector communications providers are unlikely to invest in deploying infrastructure.

    I know that’s not a complete answer to your question, but hopefully it’s a start. And in fact you’ve set my mind thinking about a future blog post!




  5. Saibal D. Chowdhury says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thank for taking time to reply to my comment. I read and agree to the concept of treating the city as a market – still many interesting projects find it hard to find funds. A proposed new rail link connecting 5 cities (or districts) may raise the economic and social vibrancy of all the districts but revenues for the investors in the rail link may not the enough to justify the investment. What is needed here is innovation in business modeling , whereby over all economic benefits is shared taking a cluster approach rather than slicing and dicing or a sectorial approach. What is imperative here is that urban planning process be integrated with investment programing. That way the planners will be able to simulate impact and feasibility early on



  6. rickrobinson says:

    Hi Saibal,

    I think you are right. This sort of holistic thinking – and the ability to make investments in new systems based on such holistic thinking about outcomes – is going to be vital to the Future Cities market.




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  8. Very interesting points. In Sweden we have seen dozens of municipalities demanding systems to monitorize their infrastructure at distance (traffic lights, pumps, equipment in tunnels, variable traffic information panels, just to mention a few) which gives them better control over the public property and reduces the maintenance cost and inspection time over the infrastructure. This is another way to have smart infrastructure in cities.


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  13. Nicola says:

    Where are the bicycles??? Copenhagen is a really smart city as almost half of city journeys are by bike.

    Simple is sometimes very smart.



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