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Sandra Baer on Smart City Identities, Trends, and Challenges

04 Sep 2018

The world’s smartest cities are constantly finding new ways to help people enjoy life by improving commutes, safety, and the ease of exploring a city. Technology enables this but a big part of their growth is the increasing focus on a city’s identity.

We spoke to President of Personal Cities Sandra Baer about how branding helps cities become truly smart, the challenges ahead, current trends, and the role of digital signage.

Can you explain how Personal Cities works to create smart cities?

At Personal Cities, we work directly with city leaders, business leaders and entrepreneurs that sell to cities.

Our focus is on creating a strategy that helps our clients in three key ways:

Listening to citizens

Understanding what people want sounds obvious but this is not trivial or easy.

Our objective is to listen to all of the voices in a city and find out what makes people happy. We want to know what people’s top problems are that a city or a business could solve, what it is that makes people proud to live in a city, and, most importantly, what assets a city needs to make it an attractive, productive, economically vibrant and overall great place to live, work and visit.

We are now seeing a lot more exciting ways to understand this information, thanks to new ways of analyzing data.

Understanding interdependence and setting a focus

Smart technologies should not just be a ‘nice thing’ to talk about, which is why we advise on the implementations that offer solutions to real issues.

We understand that cities’ issues are interdependent so we design strategies with the bigger picture kept in mind. For example, you cannot fix traffic problems and not deal with energy, or address social inclusion without thinking about education, jobs and talent. In other words, if you fix one problem, you’re probably going to touch all other areas the city operates in—that’s interdependence. Cities need help understanding this.

This also means that solving one issue often requires multiple fixes. If we consider public safety, an initial solution may be better street lights to improve streets, neighborhoods and public spaces. Beyond this, however, there are concerns about safer access to transit and transportation, monitoring of high crime areas, strengthening police presence and improving communication through social media, town halls, youth and community programs.

Everything is connected—you cannot just solve one problem. A solution can involve all elements of a smart city: energy, the environment, the built environment, transportation, community organizations, businesses, and education etc. However, no city can tackle all of its challenges at once, so we help city leaders determine the most pressing issues and how to address them. Ultimately, it’s about the health of a city; we help cities understand the interdependence of their challenges and set priorities for action.

Improving communication

Personal Cities recommends the best communication action.

Savvy city leaders now understand the importance of a city’s identity. More than just a ‘brand image’, leaders need to think about the true character of their city.

They need to consider the values that make a city prosperous and show its character. They have to discover and identify the city’s assets. Then, they can create brand communications that shine a light on its strengths—its history, culture, openness to business, financial stability, diversity, physical beauty and its social nature—ultimately, its overall personality and how the city is known around the world.

Why is branding and creating an identity important to cities?

Digital Signage for Smart Cities

The opportunity here is to create a community identity—that’s the cutting edge of smart city transformation.

Our world is filled with technology but none of us can keep up with it. From artificial intelligence to virtual and augmented reality, drones and even robots, it’s moving faster than most of us can adapt. Ultimately, the real objective of being a smarter city is to make people happier, make lives easier, increase productivity and to be truly inclusive so that everyone feels a part of the city—it is an overarching identity that will achieve this, not technology on its own.

It takes real leadership from the top and engagement from all stakeholders to create an identity for a city. It’s difficult but it is important.

What part does digital signage play in helping cities become smart and portray their brand image?

Cities have been involved with digital signage for the past 20 years and it’s becoming an increasingly important part of smart cities. Digital signage is a critical element of connecting people in the urban environment—there’s no question about it. 

It is the “wow” signage with a street-level presence that is particularly important for a city’s brand, as well as first impressions of a city.

When you drive into London, fly into New York City, or your ship lands at Singapore’s Marina Bay, what is your perception of the place? What is happening? How do you get to your hotel, train station or the nearest museum? People want to know this and when it’s in digital signage, it can’t be missed.

The ability to discover a city’s history, its culture and the special attributes that make a city unique can be communicated through digital signage in a much more powerful way than it ever has been.

However, many city leaders and citizens are unfamiliar with the power of digital signage technology. As analytics improve, they will learn how valuable and impactful digital out of home communication is. 

Digital Signage for Smart Cities

What are the digital signage trends within smart cities?

I think there are two exciting trends that will benefit the citizens, the city and businesses:


Smart signage connects people to the city. What’s happening right here, right now is the mantra and whether it’s local news, transit schedules or an event at the concert hall, the interaction enables the city to communicate and inform. Smart touch screens that allow “two-way” communications are genius—and still developing. 

For example, digital signage can be used to ask the city’s residents to vote for programs or projects that the city wants to implement. Users can ask for help from the city and receive emergency notifications—this interactivity can keep people connected to services and to their city government.

When I talk to young people, they often don’t know who their mayor is—in fact, they may not even be aware of city programs or services. This trend toward interaction is one way to reconnect—a reflection of smart city outreach and inclusion.


The real-time data gathered from interactivity can be coupled with analytic capabilities, thanks to sensors, cameras, internet connections and machine learning.

Digital signage technologies can already detect gender, age and behavior. So as digital networks expand, we can gain more information about how people move around the city, where they shop, where they dine—all important information for retail, transport and real estate development. In turn, this data can be used to assess the economic health and growth of a city.

These two trends are accelerating rapidly. At Personal Cities, we’re working with a company in Barcelona called Social Coin/Citibeats—they are using artificial intelligence to identify society’s most relevant concerns. Through community collaboration, people are motivated to solve these issues and rewarded when they take action. We are in the early stages of AI; stay tuned for more powerful solutions.

Are there any cities that you are particularly excited by?

My favorite example is Malaga, Spain.

The city is beautiful and is a popular tourist destination on the Costa del Sol. What’s more, it has a very vibrant business community—they have a technology park with over 500 technology partners in it. It’s also an incredible city for museums because their mayor Francisco de la Torre invited international museums to have branches in Malaga—The Pompidou Centre Malaga, the Carmen Thyssen Museum, the Russian Museum, the Picasso Museum and many more.

Importing these museums makes Malaga so much more than a beautiful beach resort and what’s particularly exciting is how this smart the city promotes their many assets—attracting people to live, work and visit the city. 

Amsterdam is another good example—they are masters at crafting a city narrative. The  “I Amsterdam” campaign is now their slogan and creates a shared affiliation with the 750,000 residents and millions of tourists.

In my last interview, I also spoke about Porto, Portugal. The city hired a design team to attract young people back to the city and created a logo that reflected both its history and modernity. Hamburg also identified 12 assets that it promotes—as a city known for festivals, sports, outdoor activities, shopping and more to deliver a great city experience.

Who are the smart city mayors whose work excites you?

When I attended the US Conference of Mayors in Boston in June, I interviewed around 30 mayors.

I particularly enjoyed talking to the mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer. He is a terrific mayor who has done an amazing job around branding and community identity for Louisville. As a part of their strategic plan, Louisville’s vision is to be “ a safe city of lifelong learning and great jobs, wellness and compassion”. Among their values are “equity, inclusion, open communication, and diverse opinions”. They state that “Trust is created as we relate openly with one another in a spirit of fairness, honesty, respect, and compassion.”

Mayor Fischer is leading a trend around “compassionate cities”. It’s about being kind to each other and doing good deeds, and also involves a day of kindness where everyone in the city gets involved in projects to help others. It’s such a smart thing to do to make people feel part of the city. They can proudly say, “Come to Louisville and experience what it’s like to be in a wonderful, welcoming, friendly place.”

I also want to mention Ashton Hayward—the mayor of Pensacola, Florida. Born and raised in Pensacola,  he lived in New York for a number of years while working in the financial industry. When he returned to his hometown, he had a passionate vision for what Pensacola could become. It was really exciting to talk to someone who could see the possibilities and work to achieve them.

What qualities does a great smart city mayor need?

Every smart mayor I have met has three qualities:

  1. Vision for the city. A good mayor needs to be a visionary. They need to be able to see many opportunities for a city and work to realize the vision.
  2. Inclusive leadership. Successful mayors see the “big picture” and understand how to set priorities across all departments. They also engage the entire ecosystem of a city—enterprises, nonprofits, academic organizations and community groups to advance genuine progress. 
  3. Ability to find money. Savvy mayors know where the money is or how to find it.

For example, in Spain, the leaders there have an excellent understanding of how to submit requests for money from the European Union for cities and businesses. In fact, this year the EU awarded Spain with the highest number of grants (48) for innovative SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) startups. This funding enables tech investments and, ultimately, a better quality of life. 

What are some of the challenges that may delay the creation of new smart cities or the growth of existing ones?

I think there are probably thousands of challenges but some of the main ones are:

Limited collaboration within cities—and beyond

The biggest challenge is the lack of shared communication and data between all departments in a city. Because of this, nothing happens fast or soon enough. This is delaying the acceleration of smart cities by decades.

City departments still operate in silos. Often they do not share common problems or see how they are interrelated, missing the opportunity for shared solutions. 

It takes an incredible effort amount of effort to plan a smart city and a lot of that is external to the city. The smartest cities are aligned—within the city and across the urban ecosystem.

City government can lead innovation, but they must also include small and medium-sized businesses, start-ups, nonprofits, educational institutions, civic institutions and civic leaders, Chambers of Commerce, Boards of Trade, community groups and all the different grassroots efforts by citizens. That’s a city—not just the people who sit in city hall.

Thinking about technologies, rather than solutions

Cities are growing and becoming smarter organically as they invest in technologies to solve problems for individual areas. However, a better approach is to first understand what people want and the connections among all of the city’s challenges.

Buying one piece of technology to solve a problem is a mistake—they need to be thinking holistically. This is hard to do and will not happen overnight. 

Educating citizens about smart cities

In the smart cities and digital signage industries, we often install technologies with the assumption that everyone intuitively understands how to use them. But that’s not necessarily the case.

The younger generation is less likely to be intimidated but often people do not understand the new technology, how to use it, and how to value it. For example, wayfinding signage that shows schedules, directions and travel options improves mobility—as soon as people see the benefit of this guidance, they are sold on the value. This education process helps everyone appreciate a city’s technology investments.

You previously predicted that safety and security, transportation, advertising, economic growth, and social inclusion would be the five significant smart city trends for 2018 (in Samsung PID interview here). Has the year met expectations so far, or have there been surprises in the industry?

While public safety is a top priority—“If your city is not safe, it is not smart”—there are other priorities emerging, namely mobility for all forms of transportation.

With advertising, digital signage has been affected by the wider industry. Advertising spend is shifting towards Google, Facebook and Amazon. The digital signage industry has responded with improved analytics, making the technology more powerful. Because of this, the advertising revenue spent on digital signage will continue to grow. Advertising is very competitive but cities and retailers are beginning to understand the value of digital out-of-home.

The economic growth of cities will be helped by increasing considerations for city branding. Every city is looking to grow economically and they need to be able to handle the density of all the new people coming into the city. I advise them to “embrace the density” but it’s not that easy—to grow economically, they need to find new ways to accommodate new and current residents and improve their ease in how they are moving  around the city, where they're shopping, where they’re eating and, of course, where they’re living. It’s a challenge.

Finally, in terms of social inclusion, the growing understanding by city leaders to listen to all the voices of the city has met my expectations and is continuing to increase.

Which regions will see the biggest growth of smart cities?

Different studies vary but the current statistics are that 55% of the world’s population lives in a city and this is growing every day. For smart cities, this is more difficult to measure but it’s estimated that there around 20-25 smart cities in the world today and this is expected to grow to 100 by the year 2023.

I think a lot of the market leaders for smart cities will be in North America and the Asia Pacific region. I also think Europe will stay on top of things. The Middle East is also booming, helped by upcoming events such as the 2020 World Expo in Dubai and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Events are a driving factor as visionary leaders want to be able to show that they are the smartest cities in the world.

And, finally, are there any other exciting areas for growth?

There are three things I’m particularly excited about for next year.

Social Coin and Citibeats

Community identity and social inclusion are still big issues for me because I think there is so much work to do to shift the mindset and investment decisions of cities. Social Coin and Citibeats offer an interesting opportunity here.

Citibeats uses artificial intelligence to find out what people want using publicly available data, such as social media conversations, public meetings and publicized communications. This can reveal that citizens have different concerns than what government leaders may believe to be the top issues. 

The currency of Social Coin supports these shifts by empowering citizens to take action to resolve society’s issues while giving governments and organizations the power to promote community initiatives. This is just one model to inspire good deeds through citizen participation and reward them. 

Smart islands

I’m really excited about the concept of the smart island. There are over 2,000 islands in the world but these islands are dealing with significant threats—climate change, sea level rise and a lack of scale to implement change. Many islands often lack a resilience plan and struggle with immigration and emigration.

It’s interesting to look at what islands can do to be smarter. Some islands are preparing for environmental disasters but want to become better tourist destinations in the meantime while making their economy more resilient. I think this is very exciting—today islands qualify for special attention, and awareness around their special needs is growing.

Energy and water management

Energy and water management are two trends that are happening all over the world.
As urban landscapes grow in size and population, as Mother Nature continues to cause natural disasters, city leaders must work to ensure that people have universal access to cleaner and affordable energy and safer and sufficient fresh water. 
I have recently been appointed as a Global Ambassador for the International Programs at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) in Washington DC. On a global scale, EEI, working with more than 65 electric companies across 90 countries, understands the challenges and opportunities of supplying these populations in cities—mega and mini—with the vital resource of electricity, while also ensuring overall economic, social and environmental sustainability. Already today, cities consume around 70% of all energy produced globally, while generating 70% of the world’s GDP. So as we grow our urban environments, demands and opportunities abound.
Smart city leaders understand how important it is to manage these resources and can “brand” their city as smart, renewable and efficient—actions that create great places to live.

For more from Sandra Baer, revisit our previous interview about how smart cities are disrupting urban spaces.

To find out more about Personal Cities, visit their website.