Smart City Design Patterns

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

Whilst there are many visions for smart and future cities, and many examples of projects that have been carried out to achieve some elements of those visions, there is little prescriptive guidance to assist cities in defining and delivering their own strategies and projects.

Cities are not systems that can be controlled, or deterministically driven towards narrowly-defined objectives; they are complex eco-systems of independent people, communities and businesses, each pursuing their own goals using the resources available to them. Whilst some degree of “top-down” definition of strategy, objectives, policies and major programmes is required, to a great degree the role of city leaders and institutions should not be to “make the city Smarter” but to create an environment within which smart ideas are likely to thrive and succeed, wherever they occur.

As a result, some very different approaches to process-driven change have emerged from thinking in policy, economics, planning and architecture: the Collective Research Initiatives Trust‘s study of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“; Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s “Collage City“; Manu Fernandez’s “Human Scale Cities” project; and the “Massive / Small” concept and associated “Urban Operating System” from Kelvin Campbell and Urban Initiatives, for example; have all suggested an approach that involves a “toolkit” of ideas for individuals and organisations to apply in their local context.

In the article “Do we need a Pattern Language for Smarter Cities” I suggested that “design patterns“, a tool for capturing re-usable experience invented by the town planner Christopher Alexander, might offer a useful way to organise such knowledge of successful approaches to “Smarter Cities”.

A “design pattern” describes an approach to a particular problem or domain that has been shown to work. Patterns are described relatively formally, in that in any collection of patterns, a consistently structured description is used throughout.

Most importantly, the description of each pattern includes the context in which it applies: including the driving forces that make the pattern applicable; the implications of using it; any pre-conditions or dependencies which must be fulfilled; and any associated risks. For a more complete discussion, please refer to my original article, or to the sources of information it references.

The structure I have suggested for describing Smarter City design patterns recognises that a successful Smarter City initiative includes a combination of technology, commercial and community elements:

  • The commercial operating model that makes the pattern financially sustainable.
  • The driving forces that make the pattern applicable, such as traffic congestion; persistent localised economic inactivity; the availability of local energy sources; or the need to reduce public sector spending.
  • The benefits of using the pattern; including financial, social, environmental and long-term economic benefits.
  • The implications and risks of implementing the pattern – such as the risk that consumers will not chose to change their behaviour to adopt more sustainable modes of transport; or the increasing long-term costs of healthcare implied by initiatives that raise life-expectancy by creating a healthier environment.
  • The alternatives and variations that describe how the pattern can be adapted to particular local contexts.
  • Examples and stories of where the pattern has been applied; what was involved in making it work; and the outcomes that were achieved as a result.
  • Sources of information that provide further explanation, examples of use and guidance for implementation.

A list of candidate design patterns for Smarter Cities is provided below; and will be expanded over time. As I write descriptions for each candidate pattern, I’ll provide a link from this list.

If in time this set of patterns evolves what seems to be a useful structure, it might develop into a more organised pattern language. If so, I will then attempt to link into some of the vast corpus of existing literature concerned with urbanism and Smarter Cities which contains descriptions of concepts and tools which could also be considered “design patterns”.

  • Online Peer-to-Peer and Regional Marketplaces – communities and businesses using information about the use, availability and impact of goods, services and resources such as water, energy, land, transport and food to enable transactions and choicess that maximise sustainable, collective value. Examples: Big BarnShutl and Freecycle.
  • Community Energy Initiatives – the formation of local energy companies to exploit “smart grid” technology, local energy generation (such as solar panels, wind power, wave power, geo-thermal power and bio-energy) and collaborative energy consumption to reduce carbon emissions and reliance on external energy sources. Examples: Eco-island and Birmingham Energy Savers.
  • Social Enterprises – a collective term for models of business that audit themselves against social and environmental outcomes, as well as financial sustainability and returns. Examples: co-operatives, credit unions and organisations using “triple-bottom-line” accounting.

Patterns work best when they are created collaboratively; I would be delighted to hear from you if you would like to contribute a pattern, or if there is an existing initiative that you think I should be aware of.

11 Responses to Smart City Design Patterns

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  3. Nikolas Kontinakis says:

    Good morning Rick,

    I’ve been following your thoughts for some time; i’m too interested as I currently work for EUROCITIES in the Green Digital Charter initiative (ICT for energy efficiency in cities), another piece in the smart cities jigsaw puzzle. The question of whether a “pattern language” for smart cities exists is extremely well put. I would go one step “further” and propose to think about a language for “sustainable cities”: while “sustainable” looks more passe as a term when compared to “smart”, it explicitly contains, in my humble opinion, the necessary virtues of resiliency and flexibility.

    In any case, there seems to be a need to clarify the difference between smart (means) and smart (ends) in the case of “smart”… as well as between sustainable (city – and its ecosystem) and sustainable (methodologies and social mechanisms) in the case of “sustainable”… Also think of if, how, how much and why “development” (in the orthodox economics theory sense) is necessary for a smart & sustainable city.

    I think it would be interesting if we could discuss further on this, I have already sent a linkedin invitation to you. Also, I will be visiting Birmingham next January for an event with the city (Sandy Taylor) through the FP7-NiCE project.


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Nikolas,

      Thankyou for this; I’m aware of Eurocities of course, and you make some very interesting points about the difference between “means” and “ends” and the relationship between “smart” and “sustainability”. I have recently been of “smart” being defined as a “clever idea that changes the relationships between the way that financial and social value are created and resources are consumed”. (Many such ideas, of course, will use newly available technologies that make the idea possible, or whose existence stimulates the thinking that leads to it). Finally your question about development is interesting and could, I suspect, lead to a lengthy conversation!

      I’ll connect over on Linked-In, it would be great to meet up with you when you’re in Birmingham (and I know Sandy and his colleagues well).




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  7. Valina says:

    Dear Rick,

    I’ve been following your articles for some time; I am very interested in your articles and the way you approach the issue of Smart Cities. I am an architect, and currently I work on my PhD thesis, on the spatial and disciplinary outcomes of the processes associated to smart cities over architecture, in the issue of housing. In order to reflect, on smart cities and the places for the innovation inherent in the ‘ knowledge-based economy worldwide through formality, as a projective architectural attitude, it has been essential for my research, to highlight the typology as a design tool. In fact, I am claiming that the internal dynamism of the typo logical discourse can react to the pressures of economic changes, social and political. I would be grateful if you could share with me news or information related to the approach in architecture and of course if we could discuss further on this.

    I ‘ve been registered here with my email, It would be a pleasure to exchange ideas on the field. Thank you
    Valina Geropanta


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Valina,

      Thankyou for your comment, and I glad you’ve found the articles on my blog interesting.

      As well as the links on this project that you’ll find on my blog, you might find related material in some of the following places:

      • The “Smart Urbanism” community, associated with the work of Kelvin Campbell
      • The “Academy of Urbanism
      • The “Sustasis Foundation“, a collaboration between some of the Architects associated with the design patterns movement in the 60s and 70s in town-planning, and some of the technologists associated with the design patterns movement in the Software industry in the 1980s.

      I hope that’s some help,




  8. Mark Stefik says:

    Discovered your interesting work having been traveling a parallel path. Just started blogging in this area and was surprised and delighted to find your footprints here.

    I head a group at Parc and we are working with other Xerox research centers and Xerox services mainly with west coast US cities so far.


  9. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for making contact; your work at Parc sounds fascinating –

    It would be good to talk!




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