The new architecture of Smart Cities

(Photo of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

I’ve been preparing this week for the next stage of work on Birmingham’s Smart City Commission; our task on the Commission is to develop a strategic vision for Birmingham as a Smart City and a roadmap for achieving it.

In doing so I’ve been considering an interesting and important question:

What makes a city a “Smart City” as opposed to a city where some “smart things” happen?

Three obvious criteria for answering that question stand out:

1. Smart Cities are led from the top – they have a strong and visionary leader championing the Smart agenda across the city. The Mayors of Rio and Barcelona are famously showing such leadership; and in the UK, so too are, amongst others, Dave Smith, CEO of Sunderland City Council, and Sir Albert Bore, Birmingham’s elected Council Leader, and a founder of the Eurocities movement.

2. Smart Cities have a stakeholder forum – they have drawn together a community of city stakeholders across the city. Those stakeholders have not only created a compelling vision for a Smart City; they have committed to taking an ongoing role coordinating a programme to deliver it. This is the challenge we have been given in Birmingham’s Smart City Commission; and I’ve previously written about how such a responsibility could be carried out.

3. Smart Cities invest in technology infrastructure – they are deploying the required information and communication technology (ICT) platforms across the city; and doing so in such a way as to support the integration of information and activity across city systems. (There are, of course, many other infrastructures that are important to the future of cities; but in “Smart Cities” we are particularly concerned with the role of technology, as I argued in a recent article on this blog).

It’s also important, though, to consider what is different about the structure and organisation of city systems in a Smart City. How does a city such as Birmingham decide which technology infrastructures are required? Which organisations will make use of them, and how? How can they be designed and delivered so that they effectively serve individuals, communities and businesses in the city? What other structures and processes are required to achieve this progress in a Smart City?

Designing Smart Cities

In order to design the infrastructures and systems of Smart Cities well, we need to design them in context – that is, with an understanding of the environment in which they will exist, and the other elements of that environment with which they will interact.

The figure below – “Components of a Smart City Architecture” – is one way of describing the context for Smart City systems and infrastructures. It contains six layers which I’ll discuss further below: “Goals”; “People”; “Ecosystem”; “Soft Infrastructures”; “City Systems” and “Hard Infrastructures”.

(I’m very aware that this diagram is not a particularly good visual representation of a Smart City, by the way. It doesn’t emphasise the centricity of people, for example, and it is not aesthetically pleasing. I’m simply using it as a conceptual map at this stage. I welcome any suggestions for re-casting and improving it!)

(Components of a Smart City architecture)

Goals, People and Ecosystem

Every Smart City initiative is based on a set of goals; often they focus on sustainability, inclusivity and the creation of social and economic growth. Boyd Cohen, who writes frequently on the subject of Smart Cities for Fast Company, published an excellent article surveying and analysing the goals that cities have expressed in their Smart initiatives and providing a model for considering them.

Ultimately, such goals will only be achieved through a Smart City strategy if that strategy results in changes to city systems and infrastructures that make a difference to individuals within the city – whether they are residents, workers or visitors. The art of user-centric, or citizen-centric, service design is a rich subject in its own right, and I don’t intend to address it directly here. However, I am very much concerned with the wider context within which that design takes place, and in particular the role that communities play.

I do not believe that a Smart City strategy that concerns itself only with citizens, city systems and hard infrastructures will result in citizen-centric design; it is only be co-creating soft infrastructures with city communities that such an approach can be systematically encouraged across a city.

In “How Smarter Cities Get Started” I wrote some time ago about the importance of engaging city communities in identifying the goals of Smart City initiatives and setting out the strategy to achieve them. I’ve also written previously about the importance of designing Smart City infrastructures so that they enable innovation within city communities.

Communities are living, breathing manifestations of city life, of course, not structures to be engineered. They are vital elements of the city’s ecosystem: they provide support; they are expressions of social life; they represent shared interests and capabilities; and they can play a role communicating between city institutions and individual citizens. They include families and social networks; neighbourhood, cultural and faith groups; charities and the voluntary sector; public sector organisations such as Schools and Universities, in addition to local government; and private sector organisations such as service providers, retailers and employers.

The challenge for the architects and designers of Smart Cities is to create infrastructures and services that can become part of the fabric and life of this ecosystem of communities and people. To do so effectively is to engage in a process of co-creative dialogue with them.

Soft Infrastructures

In the process of understanding how communities and individuals might interact with and experience a Smart City, elements of “soft infrastructure” are created – in the first place, conversations and trust. If the process of conversations is continued and takes place broadly, then that process and the city’s communities can become part of a Smart City’s soft infrastructure.

A variety of soft infrastructures play a vital role in the Smart City agenda, from the stakeholder forum that creates and carries out a Smart City strategy; to the “hackdays” and competitions that make Open Data initiatives successful; to neighbourhood planning dialogues such as that conducted in Vancouver as part of the “Carbon Talks” programme. They also include the organisations and interest groups who support city communities – such as Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland who provide support to small businesses and social enterprises in the city’s most deprived communities or the Social Media Cafe in Birmingham which brings together citizens from all walks of life who are interested in creating community value online.

Some soft infrastructural elements are more formal. For example, governance processes for measuring both overall progress and the performance of individual city systems against Smart City objectives; frameworks for procurement criteria that encourage and enable individual buying decisions across the city to contribute towards Smart City goals; and standards and principles for integration and interoperability across city systems. All of these are elements of a Smart City architecture that any Smart City strategy should seek to put in place.

(Photo of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex from Space by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

City systems

Whilst individual city systems are not my focus in this article, they are clearly significant elements of the Smart City context. In a previous article I discussed how the optimisation of such systems as energy, water and transportation can contribute significantly to Smarter City objectives.

More importantly, these systems literally provide life support for cities – they feed, transport, educate and provide healthcare for citizens as well as supporting communities and businesses. So we must treat them with real respect.

A key element of any design process is taking into account those factors that act as constraints on the designer. Existing city systems are a rich source of constraints for Smart City design: their physical infrastructures may be decades old and expensive or impossible to extend; and their operation is often contracted to service providers and subject to strict performance criteria. These constraints – unless they can be changed – play a major role in shaping a Smart City strategy.

Hard Infrastructures

The field of Smart Cities originated in the possibilities that new technology platforms offer to transform city systems. Those platforms include networks such as 4G and broadband; communication tools such as telephony, social media and video conferencing; computational resources such as Cloud Computing; information repositories to support Open Data or Urban Observatories; and analytic and modelling tools that can provide deep insight into the behaviour of city systems.

These technology platforms are not exempt from the principles I’ve described in this article: to be effective, they need to be designed in context. By engaging with city ecosystems and the organizations, communities and individuals in them to properly understand their needs, challenges and opportunities, technology platforms can be designed to support them.

I’ve made an analogy before between technology platforms and urban highways. It’s much harder to design an urban highway in a way that supports and enables the communities it passes through, than it is to simply design one that allows traffic to get from one place to another – and that in overlooking those communities, runs the risk of physically cutting them apart.

Technology platforms rarely have such directly adverse effects – though when badly mis-applied, they can do. However, it is certainly possible to design them poorly, so that they do not deliver value, or are simply left unused. These outcomes are most likely when the design process is insular; by contrast, the process of co-creating the design of a Smart City technology infrastructure with the communities of a city can even result in the creation of a portfolio of technology-enabled city services with the potential to generate revenue. Those future revenues in return support the case for making an investment in the platform in the first place.

And some common patterns are emerging in the technology capabilities that can provide value in city communities. I’ve referred to these before as the “innovation boundary” of a city. They include the basic connectivity that provides access to information systems; digital marketplace platforms that can support new business models; and local currencies that reinforce regional economic synergies.

These technology capabilities operate within the physical context of a city: its buildings, spaces, and the networks that support transport and utilities. The Demos report on the “Tech City” cluster of technology start-up businesses in London offers an interesting commentary on the needs of a community of entrepreneurs – needs that span those domains. They include: access to technology, the ability to attract venture capital investment, office space from which to run their businesses; and proximity to the food, retail, accommodation and entertainment facilities that make the area attractive to the talented professionals they need to hire.

In a recent conversation, Tim Stonor, Managing Director of Space Syntax, offered this commentary on a presentation given by UN Habitat Director General Joan Clos at the “Urban Planning for City Leaders” conference last week:

“The place to start is with the street network. Without this you can’t lay pipes, or run trams. It’s the foundations of urbanism and, without foundations, you’re building on sand. Yes, we can have subways that cut across/beneath the street network, and data packets that travel through the airwaves over the tops of buildings, but if these aren’t serving human interactions in effectively laid out street networks, then they are to little avail.”

Tim’s point on human interactions, I think, brings us nicely back full circle to thinking again about people and the relationships between them. Tim’s further comments on the presentation can be found on Storify.

A New Architecture?

At some point in the process of writing this article, I realised I had strayed onto provocative ground – this, perhaps, is why it’s taken me longer than usual to write.

As you can see, my job title contains the word “architect”. Strictly, I’m an Information Technology Architect, or “IT Architect” – I’ve spent my career “architecting” IT solutions such as e-commerce sites, mobile web apps, analytics systems and so on. Most recently I’ve been working in that capacity with Sunderland on their City Cloud.

I’m very aware that a strong view exists amongst Architects who create buildings and plan cities that IT professionals shouldn’t be describing ourselves in this way. Indeed, some (although I’d say a minority) of my colleagues agree, and call themselves designers or engineers instead.

Personally, I feel comfortable referring to my work as “architecture”. Many “IT solutions” – or more broadly, “IT-enabled business solutions” – are complex socio-technical systems. They are complex in an engineering sense, often extremely so; but they incorporate financial, social, operational, psychological and artistic components too; and they are designed in the context of the human, social, business, political and physical environments in which they will be used.

(Entrance to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, New York, photographed by Lambert Wolterbeek Muller)

So when we are designing a technology solution in a Smart City context – or indeed in any physical context – we are concerned with physical space; with transport networks; with city systems; and with human interactions. All of these are related to the more obvious concerns of information technology such as user interfaces, software applications, data stores, network infrastructure, data centres, laptops and workstations, wi-fi routers and mobile connectivity.

It seems to me that whilst the responsibilities and skills of “IT Architects” and Architects are not the same, they are applied within the same context, and cannot be separated from each other in that context. So in Smart Cities we should not treat “architecture” and “IT architecture” as separable activities.

In “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, a work which laid the groundwork for his invention of the “design patterns” now widely adopted by IT professionals, the town planner Christopher Alexander remarked of architecture:

At the same time that problems increase in quantity, complexity and difficulty, they also change faster than before. New materials are developed all the time, social patterns alter quickly, the culture itself is changing faster than it has ever changed before.”

– Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Harvard University Press, 1964

What else are the technologies incorporated in Smart City solutions but these “new materials” from which Architects can construct cities and buildings?

At the very least, it is inarguably the case that technologies such as the internet, social media and smartphones are intimately related to the significant changes taking place today in our culture and social patterns.

I’ve blogged many times about the emerging technologies that are making ever more sophisticated and intimate connections between the IT world and the physical world – in particular, in the article “Four avatars of the metropolis: technologies that will change our cities“. The new proximity of those two worlds is what has led to the “Smart Cities” movement; in a way it’s simply another example of the disruptions of industries such as publishing and music that we’ve seen caused by the internet. And if these two worlds are merging, then perhaps our professions need at least to work more closely together.

Already we’re seeing evidence of the need to do so: many city leaders and urbanists I’ve spoken to have described the problems caused by the separation of economic and spatial strategies in cities; or of the need for a better evidence-base for planning and decision making – such as the one that IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge team in Birmingham are helping the City Council to create. In response, we are starting to see technology experts taking part in some city and regional master-planning exercises.

Over the last few years this convergence of technology concerns with the many disciplines within urbanism has given me the opportunity to work with individuals from professions I would never previously have interacted with. It has been an honour and a pleasure to do so.

In a similar vein, I have quite deliberately posted links to this article in communities with wide and varied membership, and that I hope will include people who will disagree with me – perhaps strongly – and be kind enough to share their thoughts.

I’d like to thank the following people for their contributions in various discussions that have shaped this article:

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.

36 Responses to The new architecture of Smart Cities

  1. Pingback: The Role of Citizen Engagement for Smart Cities |

  2. Hi Rick, I really like the key question – “What makes a city a “Smart City” as opposed to a city where some “smart things” happen?” It’s something I research and discuss quite a bit in my role (at IDC Government Insights global Smart Cities Strategies director). I’m working on a maturity model which addresses this question, and shows phases cities go through from being a traditional city to a “smart” one. Along the way, the city does do “smart” things – initiatives, projects, mission statements – as it develops in to one that I would consider smart. Would be interested to discuss with you! A smart city does not yet exist in its full form and to get there we are looking at a long-term time horizon. So the follow up question to yours is – what is the path to help cities get to that end stage? Enjoyed your blog, could comment on many other points you have made but will stop here. I would add that I agree – you may be an IT architect but when it comes to smart cities the boundaries are fuzzy. I cover smart cities and it includes everything from smart buildings to connected vehicles to more common areas like transport and public safety. Best, Ruthbea Yesner Clarke


    • Saibal D. Chowdhury says:

      Hi Ruthbea,

      You have raised some very good points and I liked the term “endstate”. I am interested to know IDC’s or your views. Of-course, I will be happy to share with you our (real-life) experiences in this part of the world.



  3. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Ruthbea,

    Thankyou for this; you make some great points, and I very much agree that this is all about a journey that cities are undertaking. I’d love to talk further about your work and explore what seem to be areas of common interest – I’ll connect to you on Linked-In,




  4. jorgesainzdeaja says:

    hi Rick, this is a relly interesting point, as Ruthbea have described, I Wotking in my Ph.D and we have talk about this question to.
    we work with 24 axes divided in 7 groups;

    1, surviving basic parametters: energy, water, foog produce, city formation
    2.-goods and services: industry, tourism, commerce, general services, transport, telecom
    3.-Knoledge and cultural development: information, education, I+D+I, cultural heritage
    4.-quality of live and security: sports, leisure, social security, sanity
    5.-enviromental conservation; abiotic, biotic & waste

    and we consider those 7 points as the goals to promote in base to a sustainable future, the problem are the ways to promote them, where is the diffrence between smart cities and cities that makes snart things, cause the actuall model is based in a fixed route with some feedbacks in the citizen forum, experts forum etc, but there are not in real time, those process produce smart things, like models presented by Harvey S. Perloff, Britton Harris, that are models reaaly good that have given us reaaly important things. But like you have sayed the key is in this new It architecture, that gives us parametters, and changes in the way to form the cities, obliging us to design flexible cities, the goal is to get to a point where the process designed by the public and private sector will be in constantly change with the citizens feedback prodeced by the it architecture.

    take a look to the project called “HURBS” from Sergio Castillo Tello and Maria Hernandez Enriquez


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Jorge,

      Thankyou for sharing such insightful and in-depth comments; I will certainly look at HURBS and the models you mentioned from Perloff, Britton and Harris.

      I think the key is to find sustainable processes and organisations that will create the constant change and citizen feedback that you describe.




  5. Saibal D. Chowdhury says:

    I guess you have stirred-up an important discussion. Your illustrative framework is an excellent starting point. I hope many will contribute to refine and expand it.

    The challenge stems for the situation that cities are not enterprises, they are ever evolving and are too dynamic to represent as models – however, a collectively exhaustive framework can be built – for without such a framework it is very difficult to design solutions and articulate the value to the key stakeholders. The difference between “smart cities” and cities that have smart systems is quite clear but the debate about which is the better path to a sustainable, productive and equitable urban environment is a valid one. The mayor may make the first call but a framework can be an excellent means to an implementation roadmap and translate vision and needs to reality.

    BTW, you may add Capacity (Planning) and Investment Envelop to the Soft Infrastructure. 🙂


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Saibal,

      You are spot on – cities are not enterprises, and understanding that point is the first step on the road to understanding how to engage with cities in order to help them evolve.

      And thankyou for your suggestions to add to my thinking on soft infrastructures – those are two great points!




  6. Saibal D. Chowdhury says:


    Here is something we came up with for our pilot smart city project. (you are most welcome to improve and refine it )

    “Smart cities are system of systems. A one system approach designed as a single unified interconnected networked platform providing complete visibility, manageability, monitoring and control of information (about people, objects and events ) at institutional, community and individual levels – where as cities that have few smart systems have islands of information service networks designed to deliver specific services.”

    There is no end state.. Cities are continuously expanding and contracting



    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Saibal,

      A particularly like your last point “There is no end state …” … that’s why we need to think beyond individual “smart projects” to creating the environment and infrastructures that will supporting continuous evolution and innovation,




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  9. daviding says:

    I’m wondering about “Smart Cities are led from the top” as a necessary and sufficient condition for success. If “the top” is taken in the sense of an individual, then strong mayor models of organization would seem to be necessary. If “the top” is taken as a council, then effective representation could be necessary but not sufficient.

    In addition, leaders might be either elected officials and effective appointed roles (e.g. a city manager), although the politicians tend to be more visible. When it comes to getting things done, the city administrators, when responsive, can be less volatile than elected officials who may have shorter tenure.


  10. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi David,

    I think these are really good comments; and I certainly think “leadership from the top” is necessary, but not sufficient. The “stakeholder forum” is certainly needed as well; and depending on whether the leadership is a mayoral one of in the form of a Council Leader, then perhaps the stakeholder forum needs to be formulated differently.

    And perhaps there are other conditions as well which I haven’t captured in this model; your point about the stability of the employed staff compared to elected officials certainly bears some thinking about,




  11. Mirjam Wurtz says:

    As I am completely new in the world of urbanists and just about to discover what smart cities are all about, I am not able to make more than just a few initial observations: I very much like the point about the interconnection of already existing physical fabric of the city to “smart” infrastructure. For me it is essential to never loose ground and stay deeply rooted in on-site-reality. Otherwise “smartness” is just a buzzword to add a bit of a futuristic feel, without adding any real value.
    Being (I admit) naturally rather sceptical when it commes to technology (which doesn’t mean anti, but wanting to know the benefits, I don’t appreciate technology for its newness alone) I have a bit of a problem with the term “smart city” itself. Does that mean until now cities where dumb?! I think not! I guess that connection of smart technology to physical reality must do exactly that, recognise and build on the already existing smartness.


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Mirjam,

      Thankyou for your comments; I agree that it is very important for us to focus on the things that you mention: building on what is already there; focussing on people; working in the context of communities and the environment.

      In my view that’s exactly what we do in the work that we call “Smart Cities”; but it is sometime too easy to focus on the technology aspect. The new capabilities that technologies offer are important in my view, but only in their ability to support cities and the people who live and work in them. It’s always helpful to be reminded to get that balance right,




  12. Hi Rick – are you aware of the new library in Birmingham? I think it looks great but many feel it is an eye sore! I think it suits the city centre environment, looks modern as opposed to the old grey building. Even though libraries are being less and less used by communities they still play an important role I feel, especially in this economic climate where not everyone has internet at home, access to computers, resources. I wonder how architects in Birmingham think the new library fits the bill of a ‘Smart City’?


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Tommy,

      Strangely enough I read your comment from my BlackBerry whilst not very far from Birmingham’s new library, and whilst able to see it very well!

      It is certainly a striking and challenging building; personally I would say in time we will become more accustomed to it and for me it enhances the mostly modern area of the city in which it is located.

      More interesting will be to see how well it plays its role when it opens in bringing the city together in a modern learning environment; given the ease with which information and knowledge can be accessed online, perhaps the role of a new library is to stimulate interaction that creates new knowledge and learning,




  13. Roger Kemble says:

    Not to be a contrarian BUT . . .

    On the ground experience these last decades illustrates collective urban descision making results in chaos and unintended circumstances: i.e. Milton Keynes, the now demolished Sterling’s Runcorn, the ridiculous Bofil Saint Quentin en Ivelyns.

    We spend million to visit and admire urban agglomerations that have been conceived and built by despots and Royalty. The 16th century Phillip ll’s “Laws of the Indies” did more for town planning than the reams upon reams of foolscap regurgitated by today’s planning offices.

    The city of today relies entirely on self-serving academics and planners blowing their own trumpets to a naive and complacent public aided and abetted by brain-washed students doing what their teachers tell them or else . . .

    Reality needs be injected into this previous nonsense. No excuses . . .


  14. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Roger,

    … and I guess you could add Haussmann’s reinvention of Paris in the 19th Century to that list.

    Technology also has its examples of the success of a single visionary – Steve Jobs at Apple being an obvious example. But there are also plenty examples of the prescriptive approach failing.

    Within cities,the Knight Foundation’s work on the “Information Needs of Communities” has argued for an approach of engagement, dialogue and co-creation, and I’ve personally found found it to be very insightful and informative –




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  27. Murray Rosenthal says:

    Rick, since publishing this article some four years ago, have you had the opportunity to update your Components of a Smart City architecture model with new thinking or insights? The model is compelling in that trains a lens on the fact technology is NOT the issue in the smart city. The issue is conceptualizing a smart city architecture calls out, and names, applicable components, as you’ve started to do.


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Murray,

      Thankyou for your comments, and I’m delighted you found the article and the framework of components useful.

      I haven’t directly updated the framework in some time; however I have shifted focus to some areas that are not well represented in the framework but that are of fundamental importance – business models, risks and investment / spending streams.

      Whilst not as concise as the framework, the following articles probably address those areas in the most structured waysbive been able to find:

      I hope they’re of some interest; alternatively I’d welcome any thoughts you have for how the framework could be evolved.

      Best regards,



      • Murray Rosenthsl says:


        Thanks for your note and links to other articles on the subject.

        I’m going to suggest that the framework be thought of more as the highest level reference architecture for smart city, and expose all of the germane components required to stand it up and sustain it over time. For example, there would be a named stratum “Funding”. The stratum “Funding” is a foundational building block for smart city, and so on. The building blocks are arranged according to some order or relationship. Additionally, each building block, or stratum, can be elaborated. Thus the named stratum “Funding” can have a characteristic, or element, attached to it, such as “private-public partnership”, or “return on investment”. This kind of stratum, or building block, elaboration informs the reference architecture at a level of expression that removes ambiguity about what it is that smart city reference architecture is attempting to convey.


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