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There is no sense in sensors: making a smart city for citizens

25 July 2016

“Smart cities represent the culmination of a development that is bringing together local green grass-roots movements and Silicon Valley mind-sets.  Smart cities promise us that we can build clean, efficient, sustainable and attractive cities and at the same time increase economic development.  Policy makers hope that smart cities are the key to bridging the gap between social, ecological and economic sustainability.” (Alanus Von Radecki, Smart Impact State of the Art November 2015)

Ecosystem solutions

But there are problems at the same time. Being a smart city has become a badge of honour that European cities often claim without substance. It has become the next ‘big idea’ for ambitious politicians wanting to show how modern and attractive their city has become. Smart has become the adjective de jour, already a ‘plastic word’ at risk of becoming meaningless. Initially Smart Cities was taken up by big corporates such as IBM and Cisco in search of new markets for their internet of things. 

Within Cohesion Policy smart specialisation addresses a much narrower focus on technological innovation for economic development. This is exemplified by the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities, which is a stakeholder platform comprising 4000 actors from across the public, private and third sector. But to date the evidence for the link between being smart and economic growth is tenuous.   And like the fad for clusters in the 2000s, there is a risk that smart specialisation strategies will remain too broad (i.e. lacking specialisation), too supply led and not sufficiently addressed to the service sector which is the main employer in most European cities.

The new URBACT network Smart Impact seeks to address some of the weaknesses of the smart cities bandwagon by a strict geographical focus on the district and an emphasis on the citizen. They eschew technologies and instead focus on governance models, investment frameworks and new forms of public private collaboration. This means drawing on triple/quadruple helix models, sustainability cycles and energy planning approaches. They seek to ‘fill the smart city vessel with life’.

Smart cities and districts in Europe

Existing models of smart districts in Europe include Berlin’s Aldershot and TXL areas, the Cleantech cluster in Copenhagen, the NDSM wharf in Amsterdam and Demola in Tampere. The EU has used Horizon 2020 to finance large scale ‘Lighthouse’ projects:

·         Triangulum – Sustainable mobility, energy, ICT and business opportunities. Cities are Manchester, Eindhoven and Stavanger (followers: Prague, Sabadell and Leipzig)

·         Grow Smarter - integrating energy, infrastructure and transport in 12 pilots. Cities are Stockholm, Cologne and Barcelona (followers: Valetta, Suceava, Porto, Cork and Graz).

·         Remourban - a regeneration model to bring together energy, mobility and ICT. Cities are Valladolid, Nottingham, Telesis (followers: Seraing and Miskolc)

·         Sharing cities-  despite its title, nothing to do with the new concept of the sharing or collaborative economy. Instead the project seeks to develop affordable, integrated, commercial-scale smart city solutions with a high market potential.  Cities are London, Milan and Lisbon (followers: Bordeaux, Warsaw, and Burgos)

Each of these will develop pilot actions in the lead cities. However, despite the engagement of cities in these projects, they are still likely to perpetuate the technological fix aspects of Smart Cities.   

Markets, organisation and leadership

Von Radecki identifies challenges because of market barriers, organisation and leadership:

Market barriers are a problem because in complex stakeholder environments the financial model to generate profit is not yet clear. Each country has its own landscape of incentives such as feed in tariffs and questions over who bears what costs are unresolved. As a result, many business models fail, not least because externalities are not adequately costed and so more sustainable solutions fail compared to existing non-sustainable practices. Solutions are subject too numerous ‘wrong pocket’ problems in which the investor does not harvest the longer term savings.

Systems developed by private companies have often lacked inter-operability as each provider tries to lock customers into their solution. Future solutions are likely to be more like Android than Apple, more open and transparent and developed through co-creation. 

At the organisational level the thinking needs to be holistic and system oriented. Whereas most companies are used to selling single products, here the need is for system solutions. It is likely that eco systems of businesses technologies and services will become more important. The problem is that companies are not system integrators because this lessens the importance of individual products. The key to system value is determined by the relationship and interoperability between entities, rather than the nature of the entities themselves i.e. we want our watch to interface with the smart phone and the street and traffic lights, and not all be made by the same vendor. Cities themselves remain trapped in both silo thinking and silo forms of organisation. Only integrated approaches to urban problems can overcome this but cities lack the integrator agency or department. 

At the leadership level, political leadership is either weak or missing. A smart district needs a long term commitment and entails risk as many of the approaches have not been tested. Without buy-in from city leaders it is impossible to make progress on the ground.  It is also difficult to engender genuine partnership between cities and companies. This happens not only because of public procurement rules and fear of lock-in that make co-production challenging, but also because this is a new frontier which both cities and companies need to learn how to navigate.

Ultimately, Von Radecki quotes Bill Gates in arguing that the private sector and more specifically the market is unable to deal with the complex challenges involved in managing common goods.  He was referring to climate change, but other major challenges whether it is the use of open space, clean air, or traffic are all problematic areas of the public realm.  Von Radecki cites the work of Elinor Ostrom who mostly focused on forest and marine ecosystems but occasionally looked at urban governance issues such as policing.  It is here that the complex interplay of public and private will need to be developed if the smart city with its smart districts is to succeed. 

Smart Impact has taken a bold step by taking the technologies as given and focusing instead on their governance and implementation.  They seek to develop the role of the municipal authority as an integrator of the public actors and to explore who can play this role across all three sectors and what the integrator role means in practice.  The proof of the pudding will be whether Smart Cities can escape their limited focus on economy and environmental impact and start to address the core concerns of citizens around social inclusion and quality of life.  We need to put some sense into sensors. 

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