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Smart Cities: Beyond the Technology to People and Process

10 Apr 2017

On the lookout for experts in the world of smart cities, we came across Florence Engasser. Florence is a researcher at innovation charity Nesta and a “smart cities enthusiast” (according to her Twitter bio). We wanted to know how Florence thought the smart cities of the future would end up. Read her thoughts below as she touches on the relationships between citizens and policymakers, experimentation, and inclusivity.

The following was written by Florence Engasser.

Is there really a city that would not aspire to be smart? Yet, the concept of smart, or intelligent city has often been heavily criticized, as unrealistic or expensive visions of the direction urban development should take. This is mostly linked to a misunderstanding, whereby a city’s smartness is only judged against its digital infrastructure: IoT sensors, big data computing, and real-time information flows for real-time decision-making. Something more of Blade Runner or Minority Report than today’s Los Angeles, London or New Delhi.

At Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, we spend a lot of time thinking about the future, innovation and policymaking. We think that cities are more than their physical infrastructure, they are also a combination of citizens and decision-makers. So rather than trying to make exact predictions for the future of the smart city, this article explores a very holistic and optimistic vision of what the city of the future should look like to deserve to be called smart.

My wish list for the smart city of the future includes taking advantage of smart city-dwellers, experimenting with new, smarter approaches for decision-making, and keeping an eye on inclusivity to ensure smart outcomes.

Smart people: citizens and policymakers

Smart Cities - Collective Intelligence

The really smart city of the future will reach out for collective intelligence before reaching out for new technologies. There can be wisdom in crowds and citizens are often best placed to express what they see as priorities for the cities. Platforms for communication and collaboration like FixMyStreet, where people can report local issues (broken pavement or street light for example) directly to their local council, or Carticipe, which encourages citizens to share ideas for and debate on neighborhood planning are great examples. This will also mean that the smart city of the future is one with smart policymakers, who understand data and new technologies and how they can best be integrated into city workflows to reach their full potential.

There is scope for more bottom-up initiatives, from entrepreneurs, NGOs, communities or individuals. Movements like the Fab City, based on DIY or maker trends, aim to re-empower citizens, with means of production and manufacturing, ultimately leading to more resilient, sustainable and therefore smarter cities.

Smart approaches: experimentation and design thinking

Smart Cities - Design Thinking

Part of the critique of the smart city lies in an improper use of technology. Shiny new technologies and open data are not in and of themselves indispensable for cities, and using them for the sake of ‘smartness’ is often the wrong way to go. City governments need to change their approach and adopt a problem-oriented mindset: start by identifying an issue, diagnosing needs and testing hypotheses before designing a solution. In some case, technology and data can help, but not systematically. 

Why not be inspired by megacities in the developing world? Developing cities are leapfrogging many of the development stages old cities like Paris or London have been through, and have the potential to experiment with urban decision-making models. In Bangalore for example, the Next Bengaluru initiative enabled residents to come together, online and offline, to create a community vision for the redevelopment of the Shanthinagar neighborhood. With over 600 ideas crowdsourced, it was a great success, and its initiators are currently working with local urban planners to get ideas adopted. India, by its sheer scale and diversity, has always been a laboratory for business solutions. More recently, cities themselves have started experimenting, as indicated by the development of the India Smart Cities Challenge in 2015.

Smart outcomes: inclusivity

Smart Cities - Inclusivity

Cities will only be smart if they remain inclusive. There is a danger in thinking technology is always the solution. Often, trends like increasing smartphone penetration lure us with the promise of a future city we are not entirely ready for. The Finnish bus hailing service and smartphone application Kutsuplus is a good example of that: older people, less likely to own a smartphone, were being left out of this new transportation system.

The smart city of tomorrow will need to be an inclusive one, where all needs are catered for equally, and no marginalized communities or minorities are left out of the decision-making process. Participatory budgeting, such as has been done in Porto Alegre since the 1990s and as Paris is currently testing with online platform Madame la Maire, could be the beginning of a solution, particularly in today’s (and probably tomorrow’s) socio-economic crisis.

Concluding thoughts

All cities have the potential and should want to be smart. And what will actually make them smart is the way in which they leverage the resources (including human), tools and approaches they use. Some of these tools may involve new technologies and data, but not as a rule. The definition of the smart city as one that is completely retrofitted in high-tech sensors and digital infrastructure will be no longer valid, and cities will realize that tech has to remain the enabler rather than becoming the solution.


Florence Engasser works as a researcher for Nesta, an independent charity dedicated to increasing the innovation capacity of the UK. You follow Florence on Twitter here, and for more about Nesta’s work on the subject, check out: Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up.

Want more on smart cities? 

Smart Cities: Nine Expert Predictions, where three Smart City thought leaders share their top predictions and concerns.
Smart Cities: Securing Privacy and Meeting Responsibilities, where CEO of Future of Privacy Forum shares his lessons learned after working with city CIO’s and signage companies on smart city projects.

Interview with Bas Boorsma on Smart Cities Week.

Sandra Baer on how smart cities are disrupting urban spaces.