80 percent of the population currently lives in cities. Population growth and aging, climate change, and pollution—all these are the de facto trending topics in our current societies and all of them contribute to the pressure on public resources availability.
Faced with the challenge of maintaining citizens’ quality of life and living, the smarter move for governments was to combine and use the increasing availability of data and advances in research on the technology of things, and this way optimize the delivery of services. How is it called? Smart city. What is the goal? To tailor public services to increase resource efficiency.
“Smart city“ is a broad concept for urban development strategies involving multiple policy areas, cross-sectorial business fields, and collaboration between different agents. Due to its very broad nature, it has been repeatedly stigmatized as a “buzzword”: that is, of little meaning. But a lack of a clear definition does not always imply a lack of history or a lack of consistency. In fact, “smart city“ has always been linked to an all-encompassing approach to coordinate the multiple dimensions of a city with the help of technology: from households and buildings to infrastructure and transportation, and including all social service areas. However, the concept has evolved too. And at each stage, it has learned from its weakness to shift towards an even better and stronger “smart city“. Join us on this journey: 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, ready?
The shift from the “I want it all“ to the “I want it now“ approach
Initially, “Smart city“ was linked to projects like Planet IT in Portugal, Songdo in South Korea, or Masdar in the United Arab Emirates. It entailed the construction of cities from scratch: high-tech newly built urban spaces invaded by data monitoring devices aiming at total sustainability with zero emissions and 100 percent green energy sources. However, these projects require massive amounts of investment: in periods of economic destabilization and declining growth rates, governments cannot maintain the same financial flow. Therefore, these projects—estimated at a cost of between €23.5 and €47 billion each 2 —saw their pace of deployment slow. Haydee Sheombar, Smarter Cities business leader expert, framed it well: the smart cities strategy should emphasize less expensive but “quick-win solutions“ that suit the city. The approach had to shift.
In his article of August 2015, the urban and climate strategist Boyd Cohen highlighted the characteristics of this second connotation for smart cities, which he calls version “2.0”. In contrast to the previous generation, the new strategy consisted of the partnership between city councils and big technology corporations, together with the engineering sector and assistance of business consultants, to apply ICT innovations to the already existing city infrastructures. The cities and all their items were to be equipped with adequate and accessible gadgets and sensors. Smart cities 2.0 immediately caught the attention of data and technology enthusiasts, and research and academic centers, which in recent years have increasingly generated greater activity surrounding this topic. In addition, this version 2.0 has received the support of the main financial actors. For instance, the EU initiative in smart cities foresees a total investment of €3 trillion by the end of 2020. Frost & Sullivan (hereafter as F&S) estimates a market opportunity worth US$1.5 trillion by the same year.
In the same report, F&S distinguished the main strategic sectors in which this market will expand: governance and education, energy and healthcare sectors, security and infrastructure, and building and transportation.
As the graph shows, the fields that will see the most growth in the period between 2012 and 2020 are smart governance and education (21 percent each on the compound annual growth rate, CAGR). These sectors are closely followed by the smart energy and healthcare sectors, accumulating 15 percent and 16 percent CAGR respectively. Security is expected to grow by 14 percent on the total market share by 2020, as is smart infrastructure. The CAGRs for smart building and smart transportation is estimated at 10 percent and 9 percent respectively. Smart cities 2.0 make use of the fruitful and rich development of the internet of things (hereafter, IoT) and its more than one million possibilities.
IoT is of major importance for achieving successful deployment of such projects, according to experts. IoT Evolution Magazine indicated that the “connected house” is “the face of the IoT”. All items and devices sending data from households can be infinite and so this calls for the design of smart living solutions. In fact, Gartner estimates that by 2017, the number of connected things used in smart homes might surpass 1 billion units. Examples of this are the switch towards smart metering: the European Commission has already stated its goal of replacing electricity meters by its smarter version in at least 80 percent of households in each EU Member State by 2021. However, it is this constant data gathering that is indeed giving rise to most criticism.
Not all a bed of roses: technocracy and surveillance
Whereas the strengths of smart cities 2.0 might bring efficiency to city management and planning, some critical voices highlight the threats of this hyperconnected world. Rob Kitchin, the investigator on The Programmable City project at the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, Ireland, mentions five major shortcomings of smart cities 2.0: the politics of big urban data, technocratic governance and city development, corporatization of city governance, and technological lock-ins, hackable cities, and the “panoptic” city.
On the politics of big urban data, The Guardian published an article declaring “The truth about smart cities: “In the end, they will destroy democracy”, in a citation of Leo Hollis, author of “Cities are good for you“. Hollis criticizes constant data gathering and surveillance. The fear is that citizenry would not need to express preferences, as data trends would automatically show and define the best possible policy to deploy. This reproach is linked to the potential for technocratic governance. The data to be analyzed and processed is targeting the provision of “real-time solutions”. The danger is to bypass government representatives to have data analysts.
Less pessimistic views, but nonetheless critical, indicate that governments are lagging behind on two main aspects necessary to properly benefit from smart city projects: firstly, public agents are receiving the input of a new tool, whilst maintaining a traditional structure and old patterns and dynamics. Secondly, urban leaders would actually lack the required skilled staff to make the most of these technologies. Without a properly updated organization or a well-prepared workforce, the results of smart city initiatives might fall short of their actual potential.
And added to this criticism, is the emphasis on energy policy in the EU. Some experts maintain that prior to any “smart“ solution being implemented, green energy projects have to be robustly deployed across the board.
Anthony Townsend extensively discusses the topic of hackable cities in his book “Smart Cities: Big data, civic hackers and the quest for a new utopia“. In an interview with City Lab, the author anecdotally commented on problems with data privacy when discussing data privacy and hacking: “it’s not hard to imagine scenarios in local government where somebody’s brother gets access to something that they’re not supposed to have access to”. All these assessments highlighted the need to involve citizens in public decision-making. With this, the next (and current) stage of “smart cities“ emerged: smart city 3.0. The position paper from Eurocities on smart cities summarizes its main characteristics: “There are no one-size-fits-all solutions: becoming smarter will mean different things to different cities. Most of all, it is crucial to involve people in the process: there can be no smart city without smart citizens”. And definitely, smart cities 3.0 entail these two aspects: citizens have to join the bandwagon, but the solutions also have to fit the character of the city. Smart city projects must be personalized.
Overcoming the critiques by deploying a people-centered approach
“Smart cities 3.0”, “Human smart cities”, “Sharing smart cities”: there could be a million ways to frame the same idea, which is this empowerment of citizens under the form of ICT applications, revolutionizing the way in which we interact with our cities. To summarize
this new strategy, important concepts are those of grassroots innovations; modular and cheaper solutions; crowdsourcing and crowdfunding; collaborative economy, and collective intelligence. Version 3.0 is not a rejection of its peer 2.0: it is complementary to it, an add-on. The ultimate aim is to combine both, in order to gain from their different strengths and complement each other’s weaknesses. But what does 3.0 bring to the previous version?
One of the main changes is the emergence of new forms of governance. Urban leaders consult civil society at different points of the decision-making process.
For instance, some applications enable discussion and debate on policy and public projects between city councils and citizens. Examples of this are the “Madame Mayor, I have an idea” in Paris, which enables citizens to vote on their preferred projects; or “FixMyStreet!” in the UK, which enables citizens to report street damage to public officials by sending pictures and a location from their smartphone. There are also changes in terms of funding, as the initiation of new projects depends on the availability of investment possibilities; crowdfunding offers a potential solution. To avoid projects being blocked because of budgetary constraints, public policies are equivalently funded through money raised by citizens and investment from the public sector. In Rotterdam, for instance, at the initiative of citizens, the government and the “crowd” both assumed the cost of the Luchtsingel wooden footbridge. Additionally, there is an emphasis on training society in digital and technological skills.