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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.