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.

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.