Beyond the smart city

The word smart city popped-up about 20 years ago, but its use rocketed since IBM built a business case on it about ten years ago. In their article Smart cities as corporate story-telling, Ola Öderström et all argue that IBM successfully crafted a story that framed the problems of world cities in a way that the company could offer to solve. As a consequence, IBM became an obligatory passage point in the smart city technology market. The story convinced city administrators that the use of digital technology is the cue to the solution of most if not all urban problems.

Three waves of smartness

The recently published report Smart City Strategies, A global review is supporting the view of Öderström by connecting it with the first – company driven – wave of smart city policy and the development of greenfield cities in particular.

During the second wave local authorities shifted – at least in their narratives – priority to their citizens’ interests through digital platforms, open data portals, civic crowd-funding, co-design and living labs, hackathons, innovation competitions and more. At the same time, they accentuated the social component of the smart city narrative: As income inequality in New York surpassed the national average and 45% of its inhabitants are in or near poverty the city administration decided to investing heavily in broadband infrastructure with an emphasis on improving access to high-speed capability in its most deprived areas. Not exactly the solution of the problem!

At the same time a couple of fast growing technology start-ups like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb provoked a third wave unexpectedly. It was directed to consumers offering smart solutions by using the ubiquity of digital technology while disrupting old business models and bypassing governments.

Three waves, same content

Basically, the content of the smart city narratives that characterized each of the above-mentioned waves did not change. From its inception until now, ICT-infrastructure and data analytics are seen as key enablers for the solution of a varied breed of urban problems, or as the report Smart City Strategies, A global review concludes: Regardless of possibly underlying goals, smart cities are primarily associated with the deployment of ICT solutions and collecting and analyzing data to improve decision-making.

The graph below is a perfect illustration of this conclusion: Whatever might have changed in the smart city narrative, the smart-city technology market is supposed to grow exponentially without any visible deviations.

Scientific research by Margarita Angelidou is confirming this view. In her article Role of Smart City Characteristics in the Plans of Fifteen Cities (Journal of Urban Technology, 24:4, 3-28, 2017) she concluded that each of the cities that were studied accentuated the role of information and communication technologies in improving the functionality of urban systems. And further that most of these cities did not incorporate bottom-up approaches, are poorly adapted to accommodate the local needs, and underestimated issues of privacy and security.

A fourth wave

Accompanying the growing interest in the smart city, a powerful body of criticism has emerged. Find a short summary here. A recurrent theme in this criticism is the rebuke of the assumption of a causal relation between urban problems at one side and digital technology and data at the other.

This criticism did not stay unnoticed. A fourth wave in thinking about smart cities – promoted among others by the New Urbanism movement – does not mention the use of digital technology and data at all in its ten characteristics of smart growth in cities.

Urban problems

It is needless to say that the upper and middle-class image of the city as a gorgeous place to live does not apply to the poor. I only need to mention the inadequate supply of water, electricity, sanitation, healthcare, education, housing and transport and the lack of safety and security to the poor half of the population in most cities of the world. Besides, as the prosperity of a city is increasing, gentrification is pressing poor citizens to leave their places and to move to the periphery.

Apart from problems that hit the poorer part of the population in the first place, most inhabitants suffer from pollution, traffic jams, crowdedness and high housing costs.

Besides, the pace of urbanization at the global level is awesome. Every day, urban areas grow by almost 150 000 new – mostly poor – people, either due to migration or births. Between 2011 and 2050, the world’s urban population is projected to rise by 72 % from 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion and the population share in urban areas from 52% in 2011 to 67% in 2050.

A new narrative: Inclusive growth

The smart city narrative has become obsolete because of its tendency either to overaccentuate technical solutions or to be a panacea to solve all urban problems. As a consequence, a new narrative is needed based on a concise view of the main urban problems and their solution. Basically, urban problems belong to three categories: shortage of basic needs, pillage of the earth and injustice. Their solutions are threefold as well:

  1. The improvement of wellbeing for all citizens: work and a livable income at least, adequate and affordable housing, education, healthcare and transport, and a healthy and livable environment.
  2.  The growth of a circular economy that – while improving prosperity – is based on growing reuse of resources, abandoning CO2-emission in the next 30 years, traffic based on walking, bicycling, mass transport and shared autonomous cars and shortened and more regional oriented supply-chains.
  3. Becoming a just society with growing equality of income and opportunities, that is valuing diversity and respects nature and animal life, and that is practicing democracy and decentralized decision making thus challenging citizens to collaborate and share.

If I had to put these solutions under one overarching umbrella, this would be inclusive growth.

What about smart?

Yet, I add a fourth solution, and – guess – that is smartness or better digital connectivity.

In the first place the use of digital technology and data is supporting many aspects of inclusive development. But there is more: Digital connectivity – for instance the availability of fast Internet – is a virtue in its own because of its unlimited support of people to be creative and inventive. Digital connectivity might enable the cohesion between disciplines, policies and stakeholders who traditionally operate in separate silo’s. However, the vices of digital connectivity should not be allowed to be appropriated by certain groups. Therefore interoperability, edgeless computing, thought-out collection of data and the use of open standards and data are imperative.

So, why don’t we swap the term smart city for inclusive city, based on four interconnected characteristics; wellbeing, circularity, justice and digital connectivity?

*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Herman van den Bosch

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