So what is a Smart City?

By Dinesh Lodha, IFMR Finance Foundation

For urban planners and city officials “Smart City” seems to be the buzzword that they believe will prepare them for the increasing urbanization that cities will be witnessing in years ahead. With around 75 percent of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, such belief and concern seems justified, but the direction taken towards this end needs critical thinking. The definition of “Smart City” seems fluid and the contours aren’t clearly drawn.

In January 2012, a 20-story office building in downtown Rio, Brazil, collapsed. The city’s Operations Center got into action and coordinated a quick response across different departments (Fire, Electric, Civil, Traffic, Subways and others). Such coordination and quick response time would not have been possible but for the Operations Center.

The Operations Center built by IBM, integrates data from 30 agencies and video streams that it has implanted across the city. All the data and streams are reflected on a giant display from which city officials can get a real-time view of what’s happening across the city.

Songdo in South Korea, the much-trumpeted ‘Smart City’, is being built from ground-up on a reclaimed land near the Yellow Sea. The $35 billon dollar project has technology embedded in its genes. From schools powered by Telepresence to sensor-equipped elevators that move only when it detects humans nearby to homes powered by Smart Meters; the city is intended to be a model ‘Smart City’, and has Cisco as its digital architect.

There is great merit in seeing corporations investing their resources in making cities better and it’s obvious that they see a lucrative market that they wish to tap. However it begs the question are city mayors and officials right in handing over corporations such over-arching control and deploying what these companies call off-the-shelf solutions and computer models to a system as complex as a city?

Smart enough?

While technology certainly will play a crucial role in building smarter systems that makes the lives of citizens better, its integration and application needs to be well thought out. Deployment should not translate into wide-eyed optimism.

As Greg Lindsay, co-author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next“, puts it in this opinion piece:

“The bias lurking behind every large-scale smart city is a belief that bottom-up complexity can be bottled and put to use for top-down ends — that a central agency, with the right computer program, could one day manage and even dictate the complex needs of an actual city.”

Further accentuating this argument is a forecast study “The Future of Cities, Information, and Inclusion,” commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation, where it argues:

“Global technology companies are offering “smart city in a box” solutions. Governments are responding to their pitch: a smarter, cleaner, safer city. But there is no guarantee that technology solutions developed in one city can be transplanted elsewhere. As firms compete to corner the government market, cities will benefit from innovation. But if one company comes out on top, cities could see infrastructure end up in the control of a monopoly whose interests are not aligned with the city or its residents.”

There is merit in the argument but one cannot discount the fact that large corporations bring their vast resources, expertise and not to mention scale in addressing problems as disparate as that of a city.

The need therefore is for an intersection point where corporations and grassroots innovations can flourish – something that should form the genesis of a “Smart City”.

Getting Smart

While “Smart City” tag is largely labeled to cities that have adopted or implemented new mash-ups of technology in their day-to-day context, the term should mean more than that.

It should originate from a city’s desire to make best use of its existing resources and an identification of a clear roadmap as to where does the city see itself 5 to 10 years down the line. Such futuristic roadmap, developed in consultation with the local citizens, should be the fundamental guide in planning any technological deployment or otherwise that the city undertakes.

Though valuable as a guide, such planning should be fluid enough to take shape as things emerge, which is essential in the context of complex city systems, the behavioral aspects of which cannot be accurately modeled.

With a clear direction in place, the role of a city mayor or city officials is crucial. It is essential that they create a fertile ground for innovation (Read: Standard data sets, APIs etc.) that sees them making best use of this intersection point involving corporates, academic researchers and the local community of entrepreneurs, hackers, and other urban enthusiasts.

While they can engage the corporations on one hand to create applications or procure devices, they also have to encourage citizen innovation by way of organizing challenges, crowdsourcing solutions, hackathons, unconferences etc. Something folks at World Bank call “Co-Creating Solutions”. Such co-creation would allow citizens to have a stake in the city’s development and can be a source of rich dialog between them and city planners, resulting in interesting innovations and continuous loop of feedback.

In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ Jane Jacobs wrote “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because and only when they are created by everybody”. As with any urban planning exercise or civic engagement, this quote could hold true for any smart city initiative too.