Smart cities, in essence

Sun, 2018-03-18 13:41 -- Adam Beck

Let’s not overcomplicate this, please. Like we did with sustainability, we don’t need a decade-long process of redefinition of what smart cities is, or isn’t. Yes, interpretations can change over time, and it’s important to evolve. But at its core, the smart cities movement is about applying technology and data for good. Let’s unpack that a little.

Like every profession and practice, you seek to continually improve. Particularly when you are relatively new. Planning, law, medicine – all evolved as practices and professions over centuries.

Smart cities? Well, 15 years ago there was no smart phone, five years ago there was no Uber and two years ago blockchain was some skunkworks garage talk.

Invented by IBM about 15 years ago as part of a marketing campaign, smart cities has evolved from that, to a movement that deeply advances the opportunities for building quality of life, prosperity, and environmental enhancement.

But it’s been a challenging journey. Scholar Boyd Cohen penned an article [i]in 2015 that has grounded the smart cities journey context very well, speaking of three generations of smart cities. It clearly points to an evolution over time, and that continues.

Cohen neatly articulates the evolution, from smart cities 1.0 to smart cities 2.0. In this transition, we see smart cities move from being a technology-led agenda to be a city-led agenda which is technology-enabled. From tech for tech sake, to tech for a better world.

Smart Cities 1.0 was not the best display of our capabilities. And our opponents and (justified) sceptics tend to latch onto those years, when much of the discussion and investment was all about technology for technology sake.

But thankfully, we are well into turning the corner, with smart cities 2.0 in our sights. In essence, smart cities 2.0 brings the all-important context to applying technology and data solutions. Tech and data for purpose, as I describe it.

Smart cities 3.0 for Cohen is an exciting place, where citizen-led tech and data solutions evolve, sparking civic innovation, equity and inclusion by leveraging new models of co-creation and governance. Glimpses of 3.0 are emerging, and Cohen rightly points out that this generation of smart cities will be something again.

But let’s be clear, that across all three generations of smart cities, at its heart has been the application of technology and data as a catalyst. However, where the definition has evolved as articulated by Cohen, is the way in which that technology is applied and for what purpose.

A New Data World

All over the world, high-performing governments are reinventing the way they undertake their work internally, as well as providing services to their citizens. They are going digital to save money while simultaneously increasing citizen satisfaction.

Let’s unpack this a little, and take one of the foundational requirements of good planning – community engagement.

More than ever, technology is rapidly changing the way people communicate in their personal lives and it only makes sense that we engage to reflect these changing preferences, and be creative with the data available. More than anything, this requires changing the engagement mindset.

In a recent article by Matt Hamblen of Smart and Resilient Cities, he refers to recent work of the Smart Cities Council and our partner company evolve24, around using wellbeing and happiness as a city metric. Hamblen writes:

“By studying the online (social media) content related to the subjective wellbeing of citizens, Evolve24 has actually derived a correlation between emotional wellbeing and a city’s economic growth. More specifically, the company has found that each one-point increase in a 100-point emotional wellbeing scale correlated with a $10 million increase in new construction about two months later.”

The article continues, highlighting the point that the most accurate representation of a citizens feelings is not by talking to them, but rather applying big data analytics. Evolve24’s CEO in the article noted:

“Social networking content is even arguably a more reliable indicator of true sentiment than public opinion surveys, Sardella contended. That’s because surveys judge perceptions and opinions at one particular moment in time, often just once a year, while social media content can stretch across days or weeks to give a more comprehensive picture. “Greater than 70 percent of a score of a survey is relative to the moment you ask the question, and if you ask on a Monday morning versus a Friday, it’s not a good distribution of data.”

“Further to this, comments on social media aren’t normally prompted by a specifically worded question, and can be broader ranging – even hitting areas a city might not have thought to ask,” Mamblen explained.

And so, planning in the new data world becomes an interesting proposition. In what other ways can technology and data transform this profession, and community outcomes, to better respond to the urban challenges that continue to mount as we grow as a nation?

Only the appetite for change of the planning profession can answer that question.

A Movement Awakens

For Australia, we are starting to cement our mindsets and action in smart cities 2.0. But it’s been a challenge, and we are under no illusion that it will get any easier. But for now, we are in need of scaling the positive impact we create through technology and data.

The time has passed on thinking about smart cities as an agenda, or an approach. It requires the activity of a movement, based on that ‘big idea’ that we can accelerate positive change in the world.

And this is where the planning profession gets the call-up.

Sure, it’s all about tech, which scares many of my fellow analogue planning friends. But smart cities success is not really about the tech. But it is all about tech, but not really.

I highlight this internal identity crises to demonstrate the need for this movement to have good stewards that can transcend technical and non-technical mindsets. Custodians that are systems thinkers, and you know, can not only join the dots, but understand them.

Let me put it this way – I hold the firm view that smart cities is about city building, more than anything.

Fundamentally, it’s about shaping our cities in a new way that results in greater efficiency, enhanced equity, intelligent mobility, among other goals. It’s about how our cities are planned, designed, built and managed. The solutions are available, but deployment is at a bottle-neck.

This points to the need for smart cities ‘curators’ that can weave digital transformation throughout our cities, and build a data culture within and outside of government that fosters more informed and accountable investment in building better cities and citizen services.

I believe smart cities is the movement planners have been waiting for.


This article was written for the March 2018 edition of New Planner, the journal of the Planning Institute of Australia NSW Division. MOre informtion can be found here:

[i] See: