Smart cities
Smart cities

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Smart cities

5 What makes cities smart?

A graphic of a cityscape labelled with phrases in a variety of sizes, fonts and colours.
Figure 5 The four dimensions of city resilience

Cities face complex challenges but they also offer a setting where people and organisations together can find solutions and opportunities. In smart cities, creativity, innovation and enterprise combine with technology and data to develop innovative solutions to urban challenges and citizens’ needs.

As you have already seen, there are two broad approaches to smart cities – top-down and bottom-up. Top-down projects tend to be large scale and require significant investment, for example Songdo and the City Operations Centre in Rio de Janeiro. Bottom-up solutions, on the other hand, such as the kite-flying project in Rio and the water app in Milton Keynes, tend to be lower cost and citizen-centred solutions. The term ‘smart city’ is also used interchangeably with other terms such as ‘future city’, ‘sustainable city’ and ‘digital city’, which can be equally broad and ambiguous. Smart city is currently the ‘most popular formulation for the future city, and is becoming a globally recognised term, replacing or co-existing with terms in other languages’ (Government Office for Science, 2014). It has displaced ‘sustainable city’ and ‘digital city’ as the word of choice to denote ICT-led urban innovation that addresses sustainability issues.

But becoming a smart city doesn’t necessarily mean being a resilient or sustainable city. Some smart city initiatives are driven by a vision of technology for the sake of technology. They fill their cities with smart technologies but they are not clear what problem these will solve and have little understanding of the needs of the citizens. These projects are often shaped by large technology companies who want to sell their smart city solutions. Amid the heavy marketing of smart city products and services it is hard to find evidence of impacts in the real world.

Others cities have set out with a belief that smart technology such as smart meters, electric vehicles, a smart grid or city control centre will solve their city challenges but concern themselves with working out where to deploy the smart technology rather than first being clear about its purpose, identifying the problem and then considering whether smart technology is the right solution.

An integrated approach to planning and management is needed if smart cities are to become more sustainable and resilient. The 100 Resilient Cities [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] network is helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the twenty-first century. The network describes city resilience through four dimensions:

  • Health and wellbeing – everyone living and working in the city has access to what they need to survive and thrive
  • Economy and society – the social and financial systems that enable urban populations to live peacefully and act collectively
  • Leadership and strategy – the processes that promote effective leadership, inclusive decision making, empowered stakeholders and integrated planning
  • Infrastructure and environment – the man-made and natural systems that provide critical services, and that protect and connect urban assets, enabling the flow of goods, services and knowledge.

If smart cities want to solve city challenges, their best first step is to bring together city stakeholders (government, business, universities, community organisations, public services and citizens) to explore the complexity of the issues they face, and involve them in collaborative decision making and future planning of their city. This will be the start of a journey in which the city understands its issues and explores solutions which might include smart technology solutions.


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