Smarter City myths and misconceptions

(A good example of a technology dilemma: do smartphones encourage social interaction, or inhibit it?. Photo by LingHK)

Part of my job is to communicate the ideas behind Smarter Cities, and to support those ideas with examples of the value they create when applied in cities such as Sunderland, Dublin, Birmingham and Rio.

In doing so, I often find myself countering a few common challenges to the concept of a Smarter City that I believe are based on a misconception of how Smarter Cities initiatives are carried in practise out by those involved in them.

Everyone that I know who works in this space – for technology vendors, for city Councils, Universities, charities, social enterprises, small businesses, or for any of the other institutions who might be involved in a city initiative – understands one thing in particular: that cities are incredibly complicated. Understanding how to apply any intervention to achieve a specific change or outcome in them is extremely difficult.

I know technology very well; and I have no difficulty imagining new ways in which it could be used in cities. But understanding how in practise people might respond to those ideas is more complex. Will they be motivated to adopt a new technology, or a new technology-enabled service? Why? Will they appropriate it for some purpose other than it was intended? Is that a good or a bad thing? What might the side effects be?

In the case of real innovations, it’s not always possible to answer those questions definitively, of course; but it’s important to consider them in the course of the design process. And to do so we need the skills not just of technologists and businesspeople but social scientists, urban designers, economists, community workers – and, depending on the context, any number of other specialisms.

However, we are still going through the process of creating a shared understanding of Smarter Cities between all of those disciplines; and of communicating that understanding to the world at large. In the conversations taking place today as we try to do that, here are five of the most common challenges that I encounter to the idea of Smarter Cities; and why I think those challenges are based on misconceptions of how we actually go about building them.

I’ll start with the misconception that I’m most guilty of myself:

Myth or misconception 1: Everybody knows we need Smarter Cities

(Most people live in cities, and most people use technology: people socialising with technology at a flashmob in Liverpool. Photo by blogadoon)

I spend most of my professional life working on Smarter Cities projects; it’s easy for me to forget that most people aren’t even aware of the concept, let alone convinced by it.

I doubt that many of the one third of the world’s population who aren’t connected to the internet, for example, are particularly familiar with the term Smarter Cities; nor the 14% of UK adults who’ve never used it. For many of them – and, I suspect, billions of other people who may be internet users, but who spend most of their energy focussing on their busy social, working and family lives – it will simply not have reached their attention.

This matters because whilst most people do not spend their time considering the ideas we discuss in the world of Smarter Cities, most of them nevertheless use city systems and technology.

As most people reading this blog will know, according to sources including the World Health Organisation, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; and in the UK where I live, that’s true of more than 90% of us. So most people live in cities; and many who don’t are employed in occupations such as farming and transport which are increasingly dominated by the need to support the populations of cities.

Similarly, by the end of this year, ABI Research estimate there will be 1.4 billion SmartPhone users in the world; there are already 5 billion mobile phone users. Most people happily adopt the latest consumer technologies relatively quickly once they become affordable.

Every person who lives in a city is a target customer for private sector service providers; a taxpayer or voter for city officials; a potential campaigner or activist; or the leader or employee of an organisation providing city services. Politicians, businesses and public officials will only deliver Smarter Cities when people want them; and people won’t want them until they know what they are, and why they matter to them as individuals.

Simon Giles of Accenture was quoted recently in an article on UBM’s Future Cities site that the Smarter Cities industry has not done a good enough job of selling the benefits of its ideas to a wide audience; I think that’s a challenge we need to face up to, and start to tell better stories about the differences Smarter Cities will make to everyday lives.

Of course, there are also many people who are perfectly aware of the Smarter Cities movement, but who disagree with its ideas. In practise, I often find that such disagreements are less to do with the specific characteristics of any of the technologies involved, but arise from a concern that in principle Smarter Cities represents a technocratic assertion that we should change the way we design and build cities by putting the capabilities of technology ahead of the needs of citizens.

That’s simply not the case; and I’ll argue why it’s not by describing a few more misconceptions I’ve encountered.

Myth or misconception 2: The idea of applying technology in cities is new

(Human activity and transport technology have been competing for space in cities for centuries. Photo of urban streetlife circa 1900 by the Kheel Center, Cornell University)

Urbanists such as the architect and town planner Tim Stonor  and Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, have argued powerfully for city design to shift its emphasis towards human behaviour, and away from a focus on the last technology that transformed them: the car.

That debate about the role of technology in cities, then, is far from new. Jane Jacobs, writing in the 1960s when she was concerned that rapid growth in road transport was dominating the thinking of planners, quoted at length an essay on the development of cities in the Industrial Revolution to illustrate the extent to which, a century earlier, city streets were dominated by the previous generation of transport technology – the horse.

As human beings we have used technology since we first made tools from stones and wood. From there we embarked on a complex process of socio-technological evolution that continues today.

What is arguably a new characteristic of that evolution in current times is what appears to be the prolonged exponential growth we’ve experienced in the capability of digital technologies over the past few decades.

In his 2011 book “Civilization“, Niall Fergusson comments that news of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 took 46 days to reach London, travelling in effect at 3.8 miles an hour. By Jan 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson river, Jim Hanrahan’s message on Twitter communicated the news to the entire world four minutes later; it reached Perth, Australia at more than 170,000 miles an hour. The astonishing speed and ease of communication which we take for granted has led to an explosion of information; more new information was created in 2007 than in the preceding 5000 years.

Only history will tell if the speed and societal impact of the developments we’re experiencing in digital technology constitute a historical tipping point in the form of an “Information Revolution”, or if we’re simply experiencing an increase in speed of a process that begin with the development of language and includes the inventions of writing and the printing press.

It’s useful sometimes to be reminded of that historical perspective, and to remember that the evolution of human beings, human behaviour, technology and cities is a single process.

Myth or misconception 3: Smarter Cities are inhuman technologies that risk being as damaging in their effects on cities as road traffic

(Technology is part of everyday social life. Photo taken in St. James Park London by David Jones)

In describing to her readers the role of horse-drawn transport in shaping the cities of the Industrial Revolution, Jane Jacobs reminded them that it’s impact on them was similar to that of the motor car in the 20th Century: horses were physically dangerous to pedestrians; took up a lot of space; created effluent pollution in city streets that we would find unthinkably repellent today; and that their hooves and cobbles were incredibly noisy.

However, her point was that none of this was evidence that either horse-drawn transport or cars destroy cities. On the contrary, they enable cities to grow.

Technology and cities have evolved together through history entirely as a consequence of our natural behaviour as individuals: we have dense cities with busy streets because people want to move and interact, not because someone invented the elevator or the car or first harnessed a horse.

Our challenge is always to bring the benefits and the impact of technology to an acceptable balance on behalf of people and communities. Fifty years on, Jacobs’ work should still remind us to focus not on technology, or planning, or pollution; but on the needs and behaviour of people.

There is nothing inhuman about technology; but is not always the case that we design technological services in a way that shows understanding and empathy of the human requirements of their end users. Whilst that is itself an eminently human failing, it is one that we must challenge. Digital privacy and e-commerce are just two examples of technologies that can have such a profound effect on the physical health and vitality of cities that it is imperative we employ them intelligently.

And we are fully capable of doing so. The residents of Stockholm voted to extend a road-use charging pilot to a permanent scheme after it was shown to reduce journey times and increase their reliability. And amongst the stories of successful community initiatives in the Birmingham Community Lovers’ Guide are several that depend on social media technology.

Smarter city initiatives succeed when they result in services that are well-designed to meet the needs of people; when people are involved in their co-creation; or when people are free to choose when and how to use the technologies available to them. Many urban and technology professionals would say that those statements simply repeat the principles of good design in their field.

Myth or misconception 4: Masdar and Songdo are the Smartest cities on the planet; OR: Masdar and Songdo are inhuman follies of technology

(A ventilation tower using natural airflow in Masdar, UAE. Photo by Tom Olliver)

In 2011 FastCompany named Songdo, South Korea, as the Smartest City in the World. Songdo, like Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, has been newly constructed using extremely high technology techniques in planning, construction and operation to create a liveable, efficient city. However: both have come in for criticism for being “inhuman”.

In my view, they are neither the Smartest Cities in the world, nor inhuman. Like everywhere else, they fall between those two extremes. But they are also absolutely necessary explorations of what we can achieve; and the people designing and building them are seeking to do so in the best interests of their inhabitants.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, by 2050, the world’s population will grow by 3 billion, mostly in cities with populations of 1 to 30 million inhabitants in rapidly growing economies in Asia, Africa and South America. We have never before engineered urban infrastructures to support such growth.Whenever we’ve tried to accommodate rapid, urban growth before, we’ve also failed to provide adequate infrastructure. Slums are the inevitable result of that failed urbanisation; and while some aspects of their self-organizing economies work very effectively, they don’t provide their inhabitants with a quality of life that most of us consider acceptable.

Masdar and Songdo are attempts to support rapid, sustainable urbanisation that should be applauded. They may not get everything right – but who does?

I recently asked a respected architect why it was that so many new urban developments seem not to take adequately into account the natural behaviour of the people expected to use them. He replied that new developments rarely work immediately: our behaviour adapts to make the best of the environment around us; when that environment changes, it takes time for us to adapt to its new form. Until we do so, that new form will not appear to suit us.

Being “Smarter” is most fundamentally about doing things in a different way: by challenging preconceptions, and by making intelligent use of available resources. Today, those resources include digital technologies: the “Internet of Things“, which allows us to collect data from and interact intimately with physical systems; “big data“, which allows us to draw sophisticated insight from that data; and social media, which puts the power of those insights into the hands of people, businesses and communities.

But the concept of “Smart” pre-dates those technologies, just as it pre-dates Songdo and Masdar. I spent a day discussing Smarter Cities with social scientists from around the world recently at a workshop at the University of Durham. From their perspective the idea is more than a decade old, and emerged from thinking about the innovative use of more basic technologies in stimulating economic growth and urban renewal.

I’m tremendously excited about the power we could unleash by making the capabilities of the sophisticated infrastructures of cities such as Masdar and Songod as accessible to and appropriateable by small-scale, local innovators as “mundane” technologies already are. That’s what happens in Dublin when the information shared by local authorities and services providers in the Dublinked partnership is made available to people and businesses as Open Data; and in Rio when the information provided by 30 city agencies and analysed in the city’s new operations centre is shared through social media.

Myth or misconception 5: Business as usual will deliver the result

(The SES "Container City" incubation facility for social enterprise in Sunderland)

(The “Container City” incubation facility for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland)

No, it won’t.

As public and private sector institutions evolved through the previous period of urbanisation driven by the Industrial Revolution they achieved mixed results: standards of living rose dramatically; but so unequally that life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas of a single UK city often varies by 10 to 20 years.

Why should we expect more equitable outcomes this time when the challenges facing us are of such enormous magnitude and taking place so quickly?

Many city leaders, businesspeople, activists and innovators recognise the need for new thinking to align the objectives of the business models that define the majority of the world’s economy with the need for what Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, described as sustainable, equitably distributed growth.

Consequently, new organisational models and co-operative ecosystems are emerging to deliver Smarter initiatives:

  • Social Enterprises, which develop financially sustainable business models, but which are optimised to deliver social, environmental or long-term economic benefits, rather than the maximum short-term financial return.
  • New partnerships between public sector agencies; educational institutions; service and technology providers; communities; and individuals – such as Dublinked; or the Dubuque 2.0 sustainability partnership in where the city authority, residents and utility providers have agreed to share in the cost of fixing leaks in water supply identified by smart meters.

There are also, of course, enormous roles for traditional public and private sector organisations to play as they evolve their existing operations.

Local authorities define the planning, policy and procurement frameworks that define the criteria that private sector investments in cities must fulfil. I was recently asked by a city I work closely with to contribute suggestions for how those frameworks could reflect the role of “Smarter City” ideas. I identified 23 candidate design principles for requiring that investments in physical infrastructure in the city not only conform to the city’s spatial strategy; but also contribute to its Smarter City vision, including the deployment of a cohesive civic technology infrastructure. That’s just one example of the many ways public sector authorities are evolving their policies to accommodate new challenges and new technologies.

And whilst their responsibility to shareholders is to achieve profitability and growth, many private sector businesses do so whilst balancing positive social and environmental impacts. As Smarter solutions demonstrate their ability to support business operations more efficiently through exploiting advanced technology, more businesses seeking that balance will adopt them.

But to what extent does market demand incent businesses to seek that balance?

In Collapse, Jared Diamond explores at length the role of corporations, consumers, communities, campaigners and political institutions in influencing whether businesses such as fishing and resource extraction are operated in the long term interests of the ecosystem containing them – including their communities and natural environment – or whether they are being optimised only for short term financial gain and potentially creating damaging impacts as a consequence.

(Photo by Stefan of Himeji, Japan, showing the forest that covers much of Japan’s landmass enclosing – and enclosed by – the city. In the 17th and 19th Centuries, Japan successfully slowed population growth and reversed a trend of of deforestation which threatened it’s society and economy, as described in Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse“.)

Diamond asserted that in principle a constructive,  sustainable relationship between such businesses and their ecosystems is perfectly compatible with business interest; and in fact is vital to sustaining long-term, profitable business operations. He described at length Chevron’s operations in the Kutubu oilfield in Papua New Guinea,  working in partnership with local communities to achieve social, environmental and business sustainability. The World Resources Institute’s recent report, “Aligning profit and environmental sustainability: stories from industry” contains many other examples.

However, the investment markets and shareholders are – to grossly oversimplify the issue – relatively ambivalent to these concerns, compared to their primary interest in financial returns over the short or medium term.

This is perhaps one of the most contentious issues in the domain of Smarter Cities; and one of the most important for us to resolve.

Some would say that the enormous market demand created by 2050 by those 3 billion new inhabitants of emerging market megacities will incent the private sector to develop sustainable services to supply them. Bill McKibben, writting in Rolling Stone magazine last year on “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math“, argued that, on the contrary, trillions of dollars of investment are already locked into unsustainable business models.

Diamond himself argued that consumer choice could influence businesses to adopt sustainable models; but only when accurate, reliable information about the social and environmental impact of resources, goods and services flows through supply networks to inform consumers at the point where they are able to choose. Others argue that new approaches such as social enterprise are required.

I personally think that all of those positions have some validity; and that we’ll need to both develop new business models and adapt existing ones if we are to create successful, sustainable cities. Doing so will require the intelligent application of all of the skills and technologies at our disposal.

Mea Culpa

I’ll conclude this article by issuing a challenge: help me to find the misconceptions in my own thinking.

In working in this domain – and in particular in writing this blog – I offer opinions that go far beyond the areas of technology in which I consider myself expert, and extend into the other professional domains that are relevant to Smarter Cities.

I’ve described here the misconceptions and over-simplifications of Smarter Cities that I encounter in my work; I have no doubt whatsoever that in turn I harbour misconceptions in areas that are not my speciality.

I would be delighted for those shortcomings to be exposed: I have always found conversations with people who disagree with me in interesting ways to be the most effective way to learn. And there’s still much more that I don’t know about Smarter Cities than I do.

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.

14 Responses to Smarter City myths and misconceptions

  1. Pingback: Smarter City Myths and Misconceptions | Informed Infrastructure

  2. Thank you, there are some interesting ideas in your post. I would add another myth / misconception: Smarter City is only about adding TICs to the city. There are non TIC solutions that improve city sustainability, like a marketing campaign against water waste, or installing fabric panels covering the street, like a fabric roof, in commercial sunny streets to lower street temperature, increase commerce and lower air conditioning expenditure. Example in Madrid:


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Ricard,

      Well I’ve personally felt the benefit of those street shades in Malaga whilst on holiday, so they certainly get my vote!

      I do subscribe to the view that technology is an element of Smarter Cities; though more important is a “Smart” idea that changes the relationship between the creation of value and the consumption of resources. So I’d personally view the examples you’ve described as “clever” rather than “smart” perhaps; though many in the “Smart Urbanism” community would probably probably classify them s “Smart”, and classify me as a pedantic technologist!

      Mind you; if we can agree that good ideas that change the relationship between the creation of value and the consumption resources are “Smart”, then the argument about whether they use technology or not is probably a secondary concern to getting on and delivering them.




  3. Rick, thank you for an interesting and perhaps reassuring article.

    I’m part of a small group who attempt to problematize technology not as anti technology stance but rather we attempt to re-politicize technology to move it into the moral sphere. Our most public campaign was ‘stop the cyborgs’ in regard to Google Glass. However we are also concerned with
    the current trajectory of smart cities. Although we do accept much of your first point regarding growing urban populations and resource issues.

    Anyway I was impressed by the thoughtful nature of your blog so thought it might be constructive to respond with a few points or questions.

    Vendor lock in as a risk to democracy

    This one is very concrete and simple so I hope you can reassure me:

    As outsourcing providers and systems vendors become more and more enmeshed into the functions of government it becomes harder for citizens to change vendor. You may vote in a new Mayor but they may not actually be able to change service providers (Remove Atos and bring in IBM or do everything in house) without incurring a huge cost.

    (0) Contract lock in => applies to any outsourcing contract but still a problem
    (1) Infrastructure lock in. => how do we ensure that smart cities investments do not tie cities in to a vendor.
    (2) Capacity lock in=> as sophistication increases only a few providers will have the capability to manage systems this may create a situation where there are only a few capable vendors to choose from or where moving government functions back in house is impossible

    The smart cities movement is necessarily technocratic.

    The main thrust of your argument was that “Smarter Cities does not represent a technocratic assertion that we should change the way we design and build cities by putting the capabilities of technology ahead of the needs of citizens.”

    This may be true but Smart Cities does still represent a technocratic assertion. Perhaps one designed to take into account “the needs” of the majority of the population as determined by system designers but still a technocratic assertion none the less. It cannot help it because:

    (1) The very fact that there is a “smart cities movement” creates both a degree of technology push and and encourages the creation of an apparently apolitical technocratic elite (vendors, academics, designers ) who determine the needs and solutions.

    (2) The movement is managerial in nature. It seeks to improve (whatever metrics) through the design of systems.

    (3)The term ‘Smart cities’ focuses attention on technology and thus encourages effectual logic “we have the technology” now what can we use it for? The framing means that smart cities might incorrectly diagnose things as problems to be solved through technology which may be more appropriately solved through other means or may not be problems at all. (No need to rehash “To save everything click here” … you get the point) This is in contrast to alternative terms which might have been more goal orientated; “greener cities”, “inclusive cities” …. ect. But which then would represent political programs which may include technology rather than technological programs which provide solutions stripped of political content.

    Humans are subject to the system but Human agency is design time

    While a good smart city design “shows understanding and empathy of the human requirements of their end users” the current model of smart cities concentrates on understanding these needs then designing a system to accommodate them. Once deployed it is hard to change. This creates a democratic problem because the laws embedded within the code are hard for citizens to even comprehend let alone debate or change. You might use the mediating technology to participate (suggest or vote) but Digg is not democracy and the system itself is considered neutral even though it is not.

    We are subject to the systems but they typically lack affordances. There are no knobs to turn, no buttons to press. Instead there is an invisible background intelligence which manages infrastructure or uses incentives, punishments to modify our behaviour. This intelligence has embedded within it certain certain assumptions based on the biases of the designer and a understanding of needs and behaviour at a certain point in time.

    Security vs freedom

    As infrastructure becomes smarter it becomes easier for authorities to use it as a weapon against perceived wrong doers or political activists like protesters.


    Lack of consideration typically given to marginalised groups. Can you access resources without an ID? Can you access stuff if you are illiterate or if you cannot afford or refuse to use technology for example if you don’t have a smart phone?


  4. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi “Stop the Cyborgs”,

    Thankyou for your comments; I’ll try to respond fully to a fairly lengthy set of challenges; I will probably fail to be concise in doing so!

    I sense that we have differing views of how Smarter Cities initiatives are driven; and that some of the other points that you’ve raised emerge from that difference.

    Cities are managed, to an extent; and they are also governed. And there is great potential for technology to make both of those roles more effective – hence, there are many management-led Smarter Cities initiatives as you say. 

    But cities are also emergent, and any approach to Smarter Cities that fails to recognise and engage with emergence will fail to engage with the reality of a city. Most of the cities and communities that I work with, and most of the professionals I know from technology and other disciplines who engage with them, are very aware of that emergent nature. 

    So just as important as management-led initiatives are those that emerge from city communities – such as those described in the Birmingham Community Lovers’ Guide, which are absolutely not led by city managers, or Bristol’s recent “Hello Lamppost” project which uses technology to enhance the playability of the urban environment.

    City authorities and their service partners in my experience expend considerable energy attempting to create environments in which such initiatives can succeed more easily; in engaging with and assisting initiatives that are already underway; or in just staying out of the way of initiatives that are succeeding. 

    That might be by investing in broadband or mobile coverage; funding skills or awareness campaigns – or supporting such campaigns that arise from communities, such as Birmngham’s Social Media Surgeries; or by providing infrastructures such as open data platforms which are intended to offer broad support to a city’s communities and economy, rather than achieving any narrowly-defined objective of the local authority.

    They don’t always get that right, of course – we don’t get everything right all of the time; but they all view this emergent aspect of Smarter Cities as equally valid as, and possibly even more important than, management-led programmes.

    Open data platforms, or the provision of open APIs from other “Smart” infrastructures, also demonstrate  one way in which Smart solutions offer affordances; and can hence be changed, or at least augmented, by actors in the city ecosystem after they’ve been designed and deployed. 

    There are certainly issues to be addressed in making the skills and connectivity required to access those affordances more widespread; and perhaps the argument to provide open APIs and other affordances is one that we need to continue to make; but these ideas are absolutely consistent with the concept of Smarter Cities, and are present in many Smarter Cities solutions already. Consequently, there is a rich set of dialogues ongoing between design thinkers, service scientists, urban designers and practitioners of Smarter Cities.

    In this process, access and exclusion are taken very seriously. Some local authorities have made great progress driving widespread adoption of online services by considering how those without direct online access can be served, through friends and family, for instance. And I will personally always remember the community worker who told me “if you try to start a conversation with people in this position by asking them their name, then the conversation’s over”. 

    Consequently, another theme within Smarter Cities is to understand how and when technology can enable city services that are successful in informal situations. I personally consider free recycling networks a “Smart” solution, for example: they use technology to enable new connections and transactions within a community that is usually local and often urban; those transactions extend the useful life of goods and materials; and no identity other than an e-mail address is required to use them.

    To touch on lock-in next: all of the cities that I work with are very concerned that they do not invest in platforms that lock them in to specific service or technology providers. Contract lock-in is one aspect of this, and an important one; but I think we’re agreed that that’s not a challenge that’s new or specific to technology solutions in cities.

    The IT world has been developing Open Standards for decades now in response to clients across the public- and private- sectors who do not want to be locked into infrastructures from any particular vendor; and initiatives such as the City Protocol Society are seeking to extend those standards into the urban domain. Every city and advocacy group that I’m aware of insists on the importance of such open platforms. 

    I don’t want to trivialise this issue: Open Standards enable open platforms, but they don’t guarantee them; and whenever technology breaks into new areas it takes standards time to catch up. But the direction of the industry and the market it serves is clear. 

    I do agree that when any new, advanced capability is invented that only a limited number of suppliers will be able to provide it; but competition soon catches up, and if cities insist in principle on flexibility of suppliers, then in time the market will provide them with choice, and they will be able to switch. Consumers make choices balancing these factors all the time – when choosing between proprietary and open source suppliers of mobile phones and tablets, for instance.

    Of course, it’s equally important to design services and systems well to avoid lock-in. Private sector businesses have made great progress on service design in this area in recent decades using techniques such as Service-Orientated Architecture (SOA) and Component Business Modelling (CBM), with the goal of making it as easy as possible for them to switch between providers of services to their business, in order to maximise quality or minimise cost as the market demands. 

    This experience is something that public sector has already learned from: for example, legislation that mandates that energy providers enable consumers to switch from one provider to another within a minimum time period; or the procurements for city services that are now very clear that the associated “customer” data is owned by the procuring authority, not by the service provider. Many cities are now also considering including “open data” policies in procurements for such services.

    In terms of infrastructures that provide authorities with greater powers of policing, I think you’re referring to the possibility that smart systems could track individuals and give authorities new powers to use that information. Those are very specific capabilities; and to be honest they already exist in principle in much more basic and widespread technologies such as the GPS sensors in our phones.

    The key is – as always – what these technologies are used for; and the governance system in which they are used. I live in a neighbourhood – a very mixed inner suburb in a large city; not a purely middle-class area and certainly not an enclave of the technology elite – in which public concern recently led to the decommissioning of a newly installed system of CCTV cameras – democracy and the media seem alive and well.

    In fact, I see great potential for Smarter Cities to contribute to democracy through engagement with the electorate; and more particularly to citizen- and community-enablement, if an informed approach is taken to procuring and governing civic services that use technology; and to enabling communities to access technology themselves.

    To conclude: on reflection, there is a sense in which Smarter Cities can be a technology-led movement: it recognises new technologies that are already with us, and concentrates in many ways on their potential benefits. I would like to think that it provokes an informed debate on what those technologies are; and their risks as well as their benefits. 

    But it is not technocratic in that it does not seek to assert how cities should work, or how people should behave in them. Smarter Cities proceed through conversation – often with an extremely diverse ecosystem of stakeholders – to find the balance between the capabilities of technology, and the needs of individuals, communities, businesses and cities. That’s why I spend probably more time on this blog discussing the latter than the former.

    I don’t know if you’ll feel that I’ve answered your challenges, but hopefully I’ve at least sought to address them,




    • Helen Snaith says:

      Rick you’ve covered a lot of ground here and I wonder what you make of the argument expressed on the DumbCity blog, that it may be smartest for a city to be “dumb”, to focus not on growth but on viability, which may mean shrinking, embracing “non-smart” strategies…


      • marcusbelben says:

        Hi Helen, Rick. cyborgs and non-cyborgs

        Had to check out definition of ‘smart city’ on wiki – smart cities are primarily about make better use of social and environmental capital, as opposed to ‘digital’ or ‘intelligent’ cities which are primarily about use of High Tech effectively (which Helen and non-cyborg effectively argue against). It also suggests ‘Smart(er) cities have also been used as a marketing concept by companies and by cities’ which is worth bearing in mind.

        Rick, I think while setting out what Smarter Cities are not makes a very readable blog, I think it can lead to misrepresentation of smart cities (I know rest of your site makes things clearer). There are many people out there willing to throw stones at what may be viewed as ‘technology gone crazy’, but in regard to smarter cities, it’s a bit of a straw man (see your myths).

        The idea that applying technologies in cities is not new, nor do the technologies have to be new. My definition of smarter city is about developing community to value the resources we have (people, new tech, food, environment, everything).


      • Rick Robinson says:

        Hi Marcus,

        Whilst I work for a company that has a clear definition of what a “Smarter City” is, I certainly recognise that their are other views, ranging from the provision of urban space that creates social and economic opportunity for the people who live and work there to the innovative use of “mundane technology” by individuals and communities through to the application of analytic technology to city systems to enhance their efficiency and operate based on predictions of future circumstances.

        I personally believe that it’s possible to synthesise those definitions into a single theme that includes developments in technology, urban design, economic systems and governance contributing towards the emergence of cities that allow their citizens and institutions to create social and economic value in a more sustainable, resilient way; and I think that that synthesis is fundamentally important to redressing the tremendous inequalities that exist in cities and in our economy over the next few decades. But that’s a very broad definition and whilst I’ve explored it in other articles on this blog – most especially in “7 Steps to a Smarter City” – I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest I’ve persuaded everyone to adopt it!

        One of the ideas that I find most exciting, though, and that I think does have the capability to unify these views of what a “Smart”, “Intelligent”, “Future” or “Digital” city might be, is for large-scale infrastructures and formal institutions to collaborate more effectively with small-scale, informal creative activity. One example would be the “Kilimo Salama” micro-insurance scheme for subsistence farmers in Africa. It uses two large-scale technology infrastructures – the MPESA mobile payments service and a national weather monitoring service – to create a business model that makes insurance affordable to some of the people with the fewest resources and who are the most vulnerable to crop failure. Andrew Zolli’s book “Resilience” explores some great examples of those ideas and to my mind offers great insight into how to bring together the various social, environmental, technological and economic perspectives for how we should shape the future of cities.




  5. Pingback: Gain and responsibility: five business models for sustainable cities | The Urban Technologist

  6. Pingback: Seven steps to a Smarter City; and the imperative for taking them (updated 8th September 2013) | The Urban Technologist

  7. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Helen,

    I haven’t seen the DumbCity blog, and haven’t managed to find it by searching – though I appreciate the name! Could you share a link?

    I guess I explore a lot of reasons for applying “Smart” ideas and technology on this blog; many of them are to do with “growth” in some form – whether economic or social; but some are also to do with issues such as social inclusion, which do not necessarily assume a background of growth.

    It is true, though, that I’ve never focussed explicitly on those cities, districts and regions that are going through a prolonged period of contraction – as Detroit has done; and my home city of Birmingham’s performance between 1970-2000 declined relative to its size.

    But whether such a city is in the process of managing such a contraction; or seeking to stabilise and eventually reverse it; I see no barrier to applying “Smart” thinking. If a “Smart” technology or idea can improve access to opportunity in a city with a growing economy, it may also improve access to opportunity in a city with a shrinking population and economy, but which nevertheless still has businesses earning revenue and seeking employees and citizens looking for work.

    In fact, arguably as economies grow elsewhere, it’s even more important that we exploit whatever technology can do to maintain quality of life and access to opportunity in those cities which have grown in the past but are now contracting; or indeed (as another commenter to this blog pointed out to me) have never had the opportunity for growth at all.

    I hope none of that’s “dumb” 😉 … but it does point out the value of considering a new and different perspective on the issues,




  8. Pingback: Six ways to design humanity and localism into Smart Cities | The Urban Technologist

  9. Pingback: La rue cause : entretien avec Olivier Seznec (Cisco France), responsable du projet « Boulevard Connecté » à Nice — [pop-up] urbain

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