Thoughts on the smart city

Over the last few months, I once more had the chance to work on smart city-related topics. (I say once more because it’s been a while since I did a deep dive into the field back with Cognitive Cities Conference in 2011. Ever since I’ve been following the field closely, but not actively contributed much.)

So recently I’ve had several occasions to work on smart city-related things. It’s been exciting to me that these engagements came through different vectors – in one case it was related to prior work in and around politics & e-governance and has a policy angle, in one case the approach was from an #iot angle and focused on connectivity in a wider sense. There might be more, and with a stronger overlap, as the circles in this particular Venn diagram increasingly move closer together.

I hope (and think) that large chunks of these recent projects will be made accessible publicly at some point. For now, it’ll have to stay a bit on the vague end I’m afraid. Once things get published, you’ll find out through the usual channels.

Long story short: I’ve been thinking about smart cities a fair bit. And two major questions have been popping up over and over again.

1. What’s a smart city?

The smart city is, as a concept, awfully ill-definied. There are plenty of definitions of course. Everybody has one. There’s not one clearly dominant one, though, and that’s a problem.

Most would agree that relevant factors are a certain level of connectivity; the way the city/municipality/citizenry/infrastructure sense, analyze, make use of, and produce data; smart grids and sustainability play a role to some degree. Responsiveness does, too. In some cases, on the more fluffy end of the definitions scale if you will, creative industries come into play.

So when I get asked “what’s a smart city”, I find it almost impossible to answer. Giving an example is even harder: There are hardly any “pure play” smart cities, and the ones that exist (in concept papers or to whatever degree in the physical world, like Masdar City, Songdo, PlanIT Valley and the like), hardly count as functioning cities. Being planned cities built from scratch almost outside of any historical context they may be smart. Thriving cities they are not.

So figuring out a more granular, fluent approach is necessary to even start working on a definition that holds up, and for the terminology to consolidate to a level where the different communities that (increasingly need to and will) interact around smart cities can talk to one another.

One way forward seems to go more granular: The level of individual projects or initiatives, ranging from infrastructure to apps to policies to pilot projects. Another way might be to be more fluent in the way we think of a city becoming smarter: Maybe it’s not always by adding a new technology (sensors, algorithms, etc.) but a governance structure that means more responsive government?

Which brings us to the second question:

2. What makes a city smart?

The way we think about smart cities has, through a mix of (so to speak) market driven debate and vendor-driven framing of the debate been focusing a lot on, essentially, infrastructure. Smart grids, sensor networks, public transport with GPS and a central traffic routing system. Algorithmic support of government. Dashboards. Put differently: Suck up more data to crunch, display it in a way that allows for quicker response by (particularly municipal) governments.

All these things might be true. However, I’m pretty convinced this approach tends to fall short. There are simply too many assumptions baked in that are a little off-base. Too many agendas, too. My believe is that there’s another angle to this, another approach if you will, that might complement or replace this kind of thinking: To focus on citizens rather than the city-as-infrastructure. Maybe it’s the political scientist in me speaking, but I truly believe that focusing on empowerment, on providing tools for improvement rather than taking the human out of the equation, is the most sustainable and most desirable way forward.

One concrete recommendation for citizen-empowering smart city policies is to take a cue from some of the basic principles that describe the open internet, especially in its early days: openness, Postel’s law; rough consensus and running code; standards should be discovered, not decreed; small pieces, loosely joined.

These roughly outlined lines of thinking are explored in the projects I’ve been working on. I hope to expand this over time, and also that I can share some details soon.