What makes smart cities truly smart?

How does a city that’s centuries old adapt to meet the expectations of an increasingly complex world? Many believe smart cities are the answer.

For me, smart cities are about way more than technology. They are enlightened, forward thinking, have long-term vision and engage citizens in a genuine and continuous conversation about how to create a viable future. In a fast changing and uncertain world, where citizens could to live to 100 and beyond, smart cities help people take responsibility for their lives, health, personal finances and education.

The rise of automated cities

Over the next 10 years, cities will become increasingly automated. Some will evolve faster than others, generating valuable data that citizens can use in previously unseen ways. Others will develop new cost-cutting digital solutions such as automation of government services and robotic libraries.

The automated city model assumes that most of the citizens understand and are comfortable with technology. So they commission smart applications that their people can access. However, despite generating some initial excitement, these applications don’t always deliver the intended benefits. Change is difficult and citizens don’t always adopt them.

The key is to get people to access the data and understand how they can benefit from it. It’s about holistic thinking and considering what happens when you build intelligence into every aspect of your city. The first step is to raise awareness of the need for change and the opportunities created through digital services, then citizens can start to engage and take responsibility.

For example, Cities in Brazil are pioneering intelligent management approaches. Rio de Janeiro is leading the way in developing an automated city model – providing citizens with applications that give access to advanced traffic management and weather information. Curitaba is pioneering sustainable waste management policies – for every four kilos of waste you recycle, you receive a kilo of locally grown food in return!

Power to the people

Education and awareness are key to getting citizens behind change. And a crucial part of becoming an intelligent city lies in making government finances transparent and accessible to everyone. With greater visibility, everyone can better understand the choices and decision-making process.

Retailers and airlines have shown us the way when it comes to self-service.

Now we’re asking citizens to get more involved, take responsibility and understand how their input can help shape the city around them.

A good example is Rotterdam – they’ve built a bridge and paid for it with crowd funding. And thanks to tight monitoring of the construction process there’s no waste. It’s not over-engineered and the project cost a fraction of what it would have done if they’d followed the traditional route. The end result – a solution the community is willing to pay for.

Increasingly we’re seeing more ways to create truly sustainable, viable cities with ideas that engage the citizens and get them to make smart choices for themselves.

You also have to be willing to fail. The Kansas City transport project didn’t work initially because it wasn’t explained properly. But after speaking to citizens they went back with a second attempt at crowd funding the project. In the future, we’ll see more cities asking citizens to fund projects, in return for not raising taxes.

Only when a city is informed, understands what’s changing and involves its people, can it really start talking about itself as a smart city.

Getting the backing of business

Small business owners often work 60-70 hours a week or more. This means they don’t have time to think about all the changes coming their way – whether that be flying cars or an aging workforce. A key role for the smart city could be to alert local businesses to what’s coming next and help them consider what kind of services they need to deal with these changes.

We need to start thinking about the skills required of tomorrow’s workforce, to help them cope with an increasingly collaborative world. There is also a growing need for skills to manage the ‘cognitive overload’ that comes with the ever-quickening pace of change. A lot of small businesses are under increasing pressure as the business cycle gets faster. They are concerned that as soon as they invest in new technology it becomes obsolete, and need to learn how to evaluate and select sustainable solutions for their business.

Small businesses are the lifeblood of the community; they are where the bulk of future employment is going to be. We have to show them a level of respect that acknowledges their immense and growing importance and value and make sure we cater to their needs.

 The three steps to a smart city

1. Establish a vision

A smart city needs a clear vision of where they are trying to get to in the next 10 to 20 years. Once there’s a sense of what the roadmap is, then it’s time to think about technological solutions. And it’s essential to always check you’re going in the right direction by talking to the community, businesses and the third sector. Bringing them into the decision-making process on how to spend limited city budgets and deliver the essential services.

2. Consult the citizens

People don’t generally spend too much time thinking about what’s next, let alone 5-20 years ahead. So we have a responsibility to help them through a continuous process of immersing citizens in their city and the forces and factors that could shape it. It starts by creating open dialogue in public spaces like shopping centres, schools and hospitals. It helps to do things that are iconic and attention grabbing and to vary the format to keep interest levels up. This could mean holding a forum which combines dialogue with displays by local artists and entertainers, or getting local schools to find innovative ways to engage parents on the future of education. Working with the education system is key; kids are very good at persuading their parents. It’s important to back all of this up with tools like a digital platform for those who want to engage online.

Typically the people who are going to engage are the over 50’s. They’re more focused on public issues, have more time and represent the fastest growing group in society. Cities need to encourage them to think long term and do things that engage young people and get them thinking about what comes next.

3. Build the technology

Once the vision has community approval, smart cities need to create platforms to support these new services. We have to agree the vision first, then build the technology platforms that will deliver it.

People already spend more time behind their computers than they want to.

What they want most in this complex world, is human contact, connection and community. People want a say in their future and the technologies that will be used to underpin it.  If we start automating everything unthinkingly it could lead to a degradation of service and a feeling of a loss of humanity ‘in the system’. Businesses and people that can’t get their issues resolved in a highly automated environment might react by moving away to places with more of a ‘human face’.

It takes a smart city to anticipate these kinds of challenges and avoid that happening.