Molly Webb: Smart cities will ultimately be driven by citizens

18 November 2013

Molly Webb, Head of Smart Technologies, The Climate Group, blogs about how ICT is being used to drive behavior change and efficiency towards a low carbon economy. Here she focuses on the growing role of citizens in accelerating the transition to smart cities.

Molly writes:

Tomorrow the Barcelona Smart City Expo will be in full swing. Companies, experts, city governments and journalists will declare the smart city a place capable of changing our relationship with the planet, people and the future. Exactly where that place is depends on how you define it.

Today the Smart City Council launches a ‘Readiness Guide’ for cities, which paints a vision of the smart city ‘solution’ and guidance for how cities can make informed decisions about technology. I like the pithy language. A smart city, ”Collects, communicates and ‘crunches’ data"; data provides the capability to 'Present' information, 'Perfect' operations and 'Predict' what will happen next. This is arguably the most transformative capability among the promises of smart cities.

What I’m less convinced by is the vision of a centrally planned and coordinated technology-driven city. The Readiness Guide puts in eloquent terms the received wisdom in companies on what a smart city is (and is not). But as Adam Freed of NYC told us back in 2011: “We have so many service providers coming to us with a ‘smart city’ offer, but they don’t seem to understand that it’s not just a matter of finding the newest, most complex system available. They know they have the product to sell and cities know they would like to be smarter, but there are a number of competing factors that go into making a match.” (See the Information Marketplaces report). 

I’m glad to see the articulation of another vision that instinctively feels more realistic, in Anthony Townsend’s book Smart Cities (published October 2013). This city is a more decentralized, messy place that will evolve around the mobile-device-centric world that is rapidly becoming the norm. With 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions and most people accessing the internet via mobile networks, this is a very different world than the one that Ford launched his Model T into more than a century ago.

It is unclear exactly how the self-organized ‘smart’ city will evolve, and the results will be more unpredictable. But given the global push by mayors to innovate to solve climate change and other urban challenges (see our recent report, Faster, Smarter, Greener in partnership with LLGA), it may indeed achieve some of the same environmental outcomes that a centralized smart city promises to.

The case studies in the readiness guide are useful, and it is exciting to see the industry pushing for innovation that will improve the livability of cities. The vision of the smart city as a place we all want to live will continually evolve, and will ultimately be driven by citizens.

Useful links:

Faster, Smarter, Greener



Read more in Molly's blog



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