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Smart Cities Require Creative People

July 16, 2014


With three-quarters of the world’s population living in cities in 2050, Lester Wong, Sheena Tang, and Raphael Lim report that participants at the World Cities Summit (WCS) held in Singapore earlier this year were asked: In what kind of cities will people find themselves living? “The general consensus,” they write, “was that a smart city would be one that is green, sustainable and liveable.” [“A ‘smart city’ has to be green, sustainable and liveable,” The Business Times, 7 June 2014] Many of the opponents of the smart cities movement believe that its emphasis on technology is going to make cities sterile and uninteresting places to live. They fear that technology will overpower cultural forces that have made cities vibrant and interesting and that data-driven decision making will dehumanize urban policies. In his closing remarks, Liu Thai Ker, chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) told WCS participants that “the ultimate achievement for a city is to earn unconditional respect” and “that a city, which was in a way the largest piece of industrial design made by man, would be judged on its user-friendliness, functionality and aesthetics.” In other words, a smart city is people-focused not technology-focused.


Given that smart cities are people-focused, leaders desiring to make their cities smarter need to concentrate on attracting people who can help them create user-friendly, sustainable, efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and livable environments. Richard Florida (@Richard_Florida) believes that one group of people essential to such efforts are those with a creative bent. Edwin Heathcote (@edwinheathcote) explains, “The idea that the creative quarter is the key to the regeneration of any city has become so entrenched that it has become almost a cliché. The orthodoxy is that it is the cultural pioneers who are best able to turn around decaying districts and transform them from neglected and economically stagnant sites into thriving, hipsterish hotspots. Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class became the cornerstone of this notion and one that was adopted by planners, sociologists and politicians as a kind of default position.” [“Are creative people the key to city regeneration?Financial Times, 19 May 2014] You might detect a note of skepticism in both Heathcote’s tone and headline. He does write, “It is time to reassess the results of this almost obsessive drive to attract creatives, to better understand how this process has worked, and whether it is always positive.”


Using London as an example, Heathcote notes that the “bohemian center of the city has been shifting around for centuries, from Chelsea to Bloomsbury, from Soho to Shoreditch and now on to Hackney and Dalston.” He admits that, in each case, “these areas became artistic, literary and design centres and each was, in turn, gentrified as the creative classes made once unattractive areas edgy and seductive, a process that attracted younger, affluent middle classes who wanted to be associated with hipness.” So why is Heathcote skeptical of the role that creative people play in helping cities become more livable and aesthetically pleasing? He writes, “While this kind of regeneration can seem an unalloyed good thing to city boosters and economists, it has its downsides.” The downsides are primarily for the less well-off residents of the city. Heathcote notes that property prices can rise steeply and quickly, often displacing groups that have lived in these areas for generations. He concludes:

“Creative quarters need time to grow. They need to build an infrastructure of the different trades, venues, office and workshop spaces and, most importantly, people, who are then able to embed themselves into the fabric of the city, establishing the kind of network that builds into a specific urban character something strong enough to attract others. There are no fixed rules for the kinds of infrastructure needed to foster a creative community but there are some features that have consistently helped. Among these is a particular and fine balance between cost and centrality.”

Heathcote’s emphasis on slow growth might lead one to believe that he would object to any kind of urban renewal. He doesn’t. “There should not be too much heritage,” he writes. “Where the architecture is over-protected, rapid change is difficult. Where its use is too prescribed or zoned, again, change and adaptation are stymied. It is precisely in the blend and the flexibility of that particular cocktail of typology, age, disuse and adaptability to changing trends that a quarter’s creative resilience can lie.” In the decades ahead, I believe that analysis of big data will help urban planners and city leaders better understand how and when to make changes and why and where to maintain cultural norms. Above all else, Heathcote believes that a city should be flexible and adaptable. He points out that in London, “retail streets, once the city’s rich incubator of everything from workshops to markets, are being built only to attract the big chains. There are no adaptable spaces, none of the big-scale industrial-type infrastructure that has proved so enduring. Developers and architects should build more anonymously, creating boxes with less defined uses. It is, of course, difficult to convince a bank of the value in this as-yet-undefined future.”


Heathcote goes on to discuss how other cities in Europe are faring in comparison to London. As a result of this tour d’horizon, he makes this interesting observation, “Creative economies depend on slack and the kind of redundant space that is the result of economic crisis, political upheaval, the collapse of industry or some other massive change.” This is potentially good news for established cities that have suffered during bad economic times; but, turning economically-challenged cities around won’t be easy. Participants at the WCS “emphasized the need for governments to collaborate more closely with businesses, academia and citizen networks to create more holistic and cost-effective solutions that improve the quality of life.” When all stakeholders get involved, the chances of making lasting and effective changes improve immensely.


The technology-first approach that has been used to develop ground-up (or greenfield) cities has largely failed the people-focused test. Adie Tomer (@AdieTomer) and Rob Puentes (@rpuentes) write, “Our technology-first approach has failed the city of the future. So-called ‘smart cities,’ powered by technology, carry the promise of responding to the great pressures of our time, such as urban population growth, climate instability, and fiscal uncertainty. But by focusing on the cutting-edge technologies themselves and relying on private companies to move forward, we have lost sight of what we even want our cities to achieve with all that tech.” [“Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014] But they note that, if we are going to get things right, “smart policies must match smart technologies.” Even though tech-first approaches must be replaced by people-first approaches, every smart city requires technology. For more on that subject, read my post entitled “Smart Cities, Like It or Not, Will Require Technology in the Future.”


Because cities are so unique, Tomer and Puentes note there is no single “silver bullet” approach to using technology that is going to work universally. Nevertheless, they do propose five rules they believe will help stakeholders keep things on the right track. Those rules are:


1. Craft an economic vision that includes a specific role for technology.
2. Use technology to promote a healthy economy.
3. Include an empowered municipal technology executive.
4. Balance project size and appetite for risk.
5. Provide city executives with stronger networks and improved communication tools.


They highlight one point that all planners should keep in mind: “No industry or household in the world will reach their future potential without access to broadband; it is the electricity of the 21st century.” Broadband is also essential for attracting smart people.

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