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We are living in an urban century. 2007 marked an important turning point for humanity: for the first time in human history, more people now live in urban regions than in rural ones. And this change is here to stay. The urban population has grown from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014 and is predicted by the U.N. to reach 6.3 billion in 2045. The number of mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants will double. The space occupied by urban regions is even going to triple – to then 3 million sq. km: an area more than four and a half times the size of France.
The Internet’s early promise of decentralization and “work from anywhere” has fallen flat. In a time, where no one really knew how digitalization eventually would turn out, visionaries like Bill Gates made ambitious assumptions: “Over time, as the Internet brings your work to your home (…) It is possible that when this happens, people will begin to leave the city.” (Gates 1995). The contrary has happened: Many of today’s leading technology firms offer incentives to work in the office, or even flat-out order former home workers back to office, like IBM recently did. Without a doubt we are living in world, where highly-specialized employment, diverse opportunities of culture or recreation, and – last but not least – high-quality internet infrastructure drives people all over the world to their nearest agglomeration. As a consequence, cities and metropolises will get more and more congested.
This however comes at a cost: rising house prices, commuting traffic, overwhelmed infrastructure, pollution, segregation, criminality and the rising demand for more quality of life provides unprecedented challenges to city administrations, governments and regulators all around the world.
Smart City – a solution?
By many, the concept of Smart City is seen as a solution to these problems. Smart City revolves around connecting a city’s sub-systems and empowering them with newest technologies, such as Big Data and Machine Learning. The added efficiency can significantly increase a city’s capability and financial stability. Textbook examples of Smart City are street lamps that dim their brightness to save energy when no one is around. Or trash cans that due to a sensor only get visited by a garbage truck when they are actually full.
Of course, to tackle the large problems mentioned above, we need to be much more ambitious. And this is the problem with the reality of Smart City today. It is more of a small step piecemeal approach, with too many projects being labelled “experimental”, “pilot” or “testbed”.
An urban solution, stuck in traffic jam
Publications in 2002 celebrated that “Fragments of intelligent cities are emerging all over the world” and in 2010 the Guardian titles “Why smart cities will help save the world”. Yet, with all the promise, the concept seems to be stuck in pilot phase. Publicly available data shows that the total number of Smart City projects world-wide is far from the expected linear or exponential growth. In fact, the rate of growth seems to be in decline.
And even the types of projects are being questioned. A study of the European Union finds that “more than two-thirds of sampled Smart City projects remain in the planning or pilot testing phases, the numbers of mature successful initiatives remain relatively low”. A McKinsey study of 50 Smart City projects agrees that “nearly all were launched as pilots with tailor-made solutions rather than as scalable initiatives”. The authors add that in most cases neither city official nor tech companies are willing to invest bigger sums in large-scale Smart City projects. Most financing still comes from government initiatives or science programs, many of which are limited in both scale and duration. It seems clear, that the rate of progress of Smart City as a strategy to solve our urban problems could be much better. But how? Here are a few finds, based on some of my academic research.
Stop hollowing out the concept
With all the potential of proper Smart City solutions, the term is clearly a fuzzy one. It is both an attractive identifier and at the same time open to any interpretation. No one can for certain say what Smart City is. Therefore, anyone has the right to call his project one. This is dangerous. Honestly: who doesn’t want to be “smart”?
Using the label Smart City is attractive for every company to market their products and every city to add this touch of innovative, progressive, young flavor to their city marketing – being especially important in a time where competition between cities over the young & educated gets more and more fierce. As a result, we are seeing very different projects of all kinds of types and sizes worldwide getting labelled Smart City, not all aiming for a big solution to the above problems. Sometimes mere construction projects that have been underway for many years get a boost by putting the label Smart City on it.
This leads to the dangerous cycle of hollowing out the concept: the conceptual incoherence allows for a broad interpretation. Yet all the diverse interpretations hollow out the concept even more. In the end, Smart City as a concept gets devaluated – even with all the potential and usage it has for us. This needs to stop now, if the concept wants to play a bigger role.
Time for proper standardization
As the incentive for this kind of misusage is way too high, only a high-profile solution can solve this problem: a standardization what Smart City means, along with incentives to undertake ambitious costly implementations.
There already have been quite a lot attempts at standardization, e.g. by the ISO, the ITU, the German DIN or the British BSI. However, these attempts failed to significantly improve the status quo because of two reasons: first, their “standard definitions” are intentionally designed so broad as to include almost all already existing understandings of the concept worldwide. This makes them quite meaningless and additionally too long and complicated to have any impact. Second, the above list already illustrates that more definitions and interpretations just add to the already existing confusion.
What we need is a big solution. We need to create a fixed, concrete and short definition of Smart City by large supra-national bodies, such as the EU or even the U.N. All underlying parttaking regulatory bodies would then speak with one voice and support the common conceptualization. Also a private corporate initiative would work as well, as long as the support encompasses the vast majority of all relevant Smart City industry actors.
Even more important would be to build an incentive to use this definition. A great idea would be to use the U.N.’s UNESCO cultural heritage certificate as a role model. In case you’re not familiar with it: UNESCO awards a meaningful title to cities of cultural or historic significance – and the will to protect this heritage. As a benefit, this title often comes with higher international visibility and thus increased tourism from all around the world. However, if a city intentionally destroys some of its heritage, that title may also be withdrawn.
In our case of Smart City this would mean, that any city using an ambitious Smart City approach would receive a meaningful certificate, for example as “certified U.N. Smart City” and be featured in a special way. This would create a better incentive for cities and corporate actors to compete in innovation and ambitions instead of marketing.
Communicate Smart City credible and believable
Another important step would be to make the Smart City concept one that people understand and actually feel a difference with. It is no wonder, that city representatives are unwilling to invest more time, money and risk when the benefits are either unclear or too abstract for the electorate to honor.
Smart City actors and initiatives should stop seeing city stakeholders as the only ones to convince. Instead, by communicating clear advantages to the citizens, the people could be made to advocates of Smart City initiatives. It actually seems like a natural strategy, but in fact this has been ignored by most Smart City actors until now.
This strategy revolves around two core points: communication and demonstration, that go parallel. First, communication should follow the same guidelines as any good marketing campaign: be precise and easy to understand concerning the advantages of costly Smart City strategies, be believable and transparent, and communicate on channels that directly reach the citizenship, both online and offline.
Second, as projects go along, the benefits for citizens should be clearly visible and highlighted. If your project improves the life of citizens, then by all means emphasize and advertise it, to create public pressure towards more of its kind. This is also a good benchmark about the real utility and relevance of a Smart City project.
An example of such clearly visible benefits with citizens becoming advocates would be LinkNYC, a project by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and Qualcomm, to place 7.500 terminals throughout the sidewalks of New York City, which offer free Wi-Fi along with other services, from tourist maps or video telephony to help services for the homeless. After a somewhat shaky pilot phase, the project has attracted millions of users, thus became an outstanding project for NYC’s progressiveness and achieved a role model character. Meanwhile similar projects in 13 other cities, such as Chicago, London and L.A. are in the making.
This shows that large ambitious projects – in contrast to barely visible small-lived “testbed” projects – can also yield large profits, both for the public and the included corporate actors. It is important that the benefits are clearly visible and directly communicated. This approach can work for many Smart City-related initiatives, from parking sensors to traffic apps or cost saving street lights.
Let’s not forget, that the citizens are not only the ones who have to profit from these projects, but also the ones eventually paying the bill – or at least electing those that decide on what to spend their money on. Offering real benefits will always be better than printing shiny labels. Smart City is about solving the urban crisis.