So what exactly is a ‘smart city’?

Well that one is just way too small: a smart cities expo in India. Image: Getty.

The terms ‘smart city,’ ‘intelligent community’ and ‘smart community,’ have been around and broadly used since the turn of the century. All have had plenty of different definitions over the years.

The outcomes of these smart city initiatives have been equally diverse: a mixed record of success can be associated thus far with the term ‘smart city,’ with as many good as not-so-good practices to learn from. And, while many smart community initiatives have resulted in a deluge of lessons indeed, some of the biggest digital bangs have come without warning or plan, yet have affected communities more profoundly than many planned initiatives.

The notion of the ‘Smart City’ has always been a vague one. Both words represent a problem: ‘smart’ remains hard to define, and objections to the term tend to grow if one is to contemplate what exactly constitutes the opposite of being ‘smart’. It is nearly impossible to tie the term to KPIs and measurable goals, while any attempt to frame the term will be eroded quickly over time: what is considered ‘smart’ today may not be that smart any longer tomorrow.

The second word, ´city´, limits the scope substantially. There is no reason why a digitalisation strategy that typically may apply to a city would not apply to a smaller town, a region, a campus or, in fact, and entire country. A large city may have different needs from a smaller town, perhaps – but a smaller town will certainly have its own requirements and benefits associated with a tailored digitalisation strategy. To disregard the latter, to frame community digitalisation as applying merely to cities, means to condone and aggregate modern digital divides.

At the heart of many definitions and endeavours has always been a technology proposition, for better or for worse. In the early 2000s, discussions, projects, pilots and thought-leadership focused on infrastructure: broadband, high end connectivity and how that would impact (and change) the way we think of healthcare, mobility, retail or education. The second chapter was led by large technology companies and focused on solutions and solutions architectures, some of them closed and proprietary. The third chapter has focused on data: big data, analytics, viewing the future of smart cities as a market of city data.

But no matter how important these technology propositions have been – and they do represent the engine of the smart city effort – a successful community digitalisation strategy is rarely helped by having technology at the beginning and the end of an equation, typically with a societal challenge thrown in the middle of it.

A true ‘smart’ community is a community that commences with its citizens – the community´s actual needs, challenges and comparative advantages – and that is able to address these by means of comprehensive innovation and digitalisation strategies, harvesting the full promise of what digitalisation affords.

But do note: the prerequisite to that turning into a reality is a proper understanding of what digitalisation constitutes. Digitalisation is not restricted to a mere application of digital technologies. It encompasses the tools, technologies, and organisational, cultural and economic paradigms that come on the back of digital technologies – think platform economics as an economic example. Or take transparency and collaboration as important components to a culture of digitalisation. A true smart community embraces such notions at its core.

Last, a smart community is keenly aware of the fact that digitalisation produces its own negatives. The loss of jobs due to automation, fresh digital divides or society-wide concerns over privacy lost: they are mere examples of the issues born out of digitalisation. A true ‘smart community’ is a community that can address and mitigate such negatives effectively. Because, in the end, how smart should we appraise a community to be if it has thousands of angry and unemployed people marching its streets, protesting against the fundamentals that was to earn the community the label ‘smart’ in the first place?

In my book, A New Digital Deal, a framework of 20 building blocks has been proposed that helps communities arrive at a ‘smart’ digitalisation strategy effectively. The book also provides a definition of what constitutes a “smart community”, because without an up to date definition, strategies may prove pointless. Here it is:

A smart community is a community that leverages digital organisational principles, tools and innovations to help the community evolve to become more sustainable, inclusive, successful and creative, and to ultimately benefit the individual citizen.

A smart community leverages digitalisation to positively amplify and augment the existing social dynamism of the community in question.

A smart community is able to positively address societal divides by digital means, and is able to mitigate the divisive impact digital change may impose on a community.

A smart community is a community in which digitalisation is not limited to facilitating a series of – often very impactful – efficiencies. Instead, a smart community leverages such technologies in constructs that represent value to humanity and to human beings individually.

In other words, a smart community aims to leverage digitalisation to propel individual growth and collective well-being.  

Bas Boorsma is author of, “A New Digital Deal – Beyond Smart Cities. How to Best Leverage Digitalisation for the Benefit of our Communities”. The book is now out and available on Amazon.


Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.


The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.

Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  


A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.