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Smart Cities Begin with Smart Approaches

June 8, 2015


Around the globe the topic of smart cities is beginning to catch on. India, for example, has established an ambitious goal of creating 100 smart cities. All of this talk begs the question, “What makes a city smart?” Most researchers agree that technology is part of the answer but not the whole answer. Some pundits believe that smart-city planners need to begin with a “system first” approach while others believe you need to take a “people first” approach. I tend to side with those who recommend taking a “people first” approach because the whole point of smart city initiatives to is to make urban environments better places to live and work and not simply to make the systems found there run more efficiently. One big player in the smart cities arena, IBM, decided not to take sides in the “people first” or “systems first” debate. In order to avoid the controversy, IBM includes “people” as one of the urban systems that needs to be optimized. The six core systems that IBM believes need to be included in smart-cities initiatives are: people; business; transport; communication; water; and energy.


Regardless of whether you believe a “people first” or “system first” approach should guide planning, done right both approaches should achieve many of the same objectives about when it comes to creating a smart city. Last year researchers from Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and Barcelona’s ESADE Business School brought together officials from cities throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States to glean their ideas about what approaches work best when trying to create a smart city.[1] Concerning that event, Adie Tomer (@AdieTomer) and Rob Puentes (@rpuentes) report, “Participants agreed that a city’s ability to achieve ‘smart’ status must begin at the planning stage. Smart cities know what they want to be; they have an overarching economic vision based on a true assessment of their strengths, challenges, and opportunities. Smart cities will then harness the power of technology to bring their economic vision to fruition.”


Part of every smart-cities’ vision is being economically prosperous. A lively business sector ensures that citizens are employed, services can be provided, and progress can continue to be made. To achieve this vision, Tomer and Puentes indicate that three economic drivers must be addressed. Those drivers are productivity, inclusivity, and resiliency. “A successful vision,” Tomer and Puentes write, “will … explicitly use technology to pursue [those] drivers [to achieve a] healthy economy.” Concerning the first driver — productivity — they write:

“A city’s economic vision must support aggregate economic growth and promote efficiencies throughout the public and private sectors. Multiple panelists referenced the concerted effort by New York City to grow its tech and information industries in support of the city’s long-term economic health. These policies range from large-scale public investments, like the multiple Applied Sciences campuses, to facilitating venture capital fundraising. A productive economic vision also will target the public sector’s technology base — most notably departmental web sites and their services — to create government efficiencies, which reduce costs for the entire marketplace.”

Although not explicitly stated in that paragraph, but clearly implied, is the fact that all stakeholders (public, private, commercial, and non-governmental) need to work together to achieve desired ends. In order to make collaboration and cooperation easier, Denise McKenzie (), Executive Director of Marketing and Communications, and Ron Exler (), a location technology market analyst at Open Geospatial Consortium, assert that open location standards are essential for any smart city undertaking.[2] They explain:

“Smart cities can improve services to citizens and visitors through innovative methods for connecting people with relevant information derived by combining 2D and 3D data from multiple sources with sensor data from multiple sources. Benefits include:

  • Economic — new forms of production
  • Civic — better participation tools
  • Political — better governance/leadership
  • Theoretical — new boundaries for a new ‘polis’

… Location data and services are critical to a smart city information architecture, but there are many parameters to accommodate in location encodings and interfaces, and thus geospatial standards are essential. Open standards provide a basis for sound spatial architectures in smart cities.”

Ensuring access to data is clearly one way of fostering cooperation and collaboration. Open standards also help achieve the second key driver discussed by Tomer and Puentes — inclusivity. They write:

“A vision must support opportunity for all firms and citizens. … Broadband is equally important to the future economic success of households as well as its businesses. So as Los Angeles and other markets explore providing their public school students with tablet computers, for example, every child should have the opportunity to use broadband in their home and take full advantage of modern computing capabilities. Education extends to adults, too, as implementing smart city investments can provide a platform to train workers for 21st century employment opportunities. Likewise, open data policies can inspire new city solutions and grow local companies, all without the failings of privileged access.”

In another article, Tomer and Puentes are even more direct about the importance of broadband for the future success of cities. “No industry or household in the world,” they assert, “will reach their future potential without access to broadband, it is the electricity of the 21st century.”[3] The third key driver of successful smart cities initiatives is resiliency. Tomer and Puentes include sustainability in their definition of resiliency. They explain:

“A vision must support a more sustainable built environment. While city cores are often energy efficient by design, cities and their suburbs still generate more aggregate carbon than other parts of the world. At the same time, their dense collections of people make them especially susceptible to the natural disasters and other long-term environmental concerns related to climate change. A smart city will understand its global responsibility to adopt sustainable policies and make environmentally-friendly investments. Fortunately, technology is a great enabler in this space. From cutting edge coastal flood management in the Netherlands to Edmonton’s The Way We Green environmental plan, a smart city vision is the perfect way to make an economy more resilient through the use of technology.”

Resiliency is a topic you read a lot more about today than in the past. The subject is a complex one because there is a lot that goes into making a city more resilient and sustainable. Urban resilience is becoming more important because more than half the world’s population now resides in metropolitan areas. Tomer and Puentes conclude:

“Twenty-first century technologies offer newfound promise for the future of cities: more efficient resource usage, greater connectivity between people and places, and broader opportunity for all. They also promise a competitive and sustainable edge relative to other cities slow to adapt. But achieving those impressive goals will require more than major capital investments and bottom-up innovations. Cities need a clear vision for their economic future, one that is grounded in reality and leverages unique local assets. Only with such a vision, and the accompanying policy framework, can cities truly deploy technology in the smartest ways possible.”

The one thread that weaves its way through all smart cities discussions is big data analytics. A new start-up company called “Place I Live” believes there is even more that can be done with big data. Its website states, “Big data helps us measure and predict consumer behavior, hurricanes and even pregnancies. It has revolutionized the way we access and use information. That being said, so far big data has not been able to tackle bigger issues like urbanization or improving the livability of cities.” The company believes “big data should and can be used to measure livability.” Company CEO Sarunas Legeckas () states, “It sounds rather futuristic, but if we can predict consumer behavior, why not do it for cities? No one has successfully done it yet, but it is only impossible until someone does it.” We’ll be reading a lot more about smart cities in the future; but, the only cities that will become smart will be those that start with right approach.



[1] Adie Tomer and Rob Puentes, “Getting Smarter About Smart Cities,” The Brookings Institution, 23 April 2014.
[2] “Making Location Work for Smart Cities – the Case for Location Standards,” Directions Magazine, 15 October 2014.
[3] “Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014.

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