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What is a Smart City?

Within the past 18 months the concept of smart (and intelligent) cities has been become popular in the media. For instance, Scientific American ran a special issue on smart cities. Industry players (e.g. IBM, Siemens, etc) have specific programs and practices dedicated to advancing the cause of building smart cities. Government agencies are dedicating resources and making investments in designing smarter cities (for e.g., see - EU invests $450 million in smart cities). Despite its intuitive appeal, we have limited empirical knowledge within the design, planning, and policy fields about the dimensions of smart cities—its characteristics, the barriers, and the potential opportunities. One reason is the term smart city is still new and it appears to means different things within different fields. In some ways the term is complex and vague. Some experts use the term smart city to highlight advances in sustainability and greening of the city, while others use the term to portray infusion of information via technologies to better the lives of citizens that reside in these spaces. Even others, consider the presence of high-level of citizen engagement in the design and governance of the space as a key attribute of smarter cities.  Therefore, no consensus existing within the academy on the characteristics of smart cities and how they fit within existing conceptual frameworks, such as sustainability and policy informatics.

In a working paper, I propose the following definition: A smart city is livable, resilient, sustainable, and designed through open and collaborative governance.

  • A smart city is resilient in that it possesses the capacity, desire, and opportunity for sensing, responding to, recovering, and learning from natural and man-made disasters.
  • A smart city takes a sustainable approach to the management of its economic, social, and ecological resources to ensure that they have vitality going into the future.
  • A smart city infuses information for automated and human, individual and collective, decision-making on optimal allocation of resources, design of systems and processes, and citizen engagement.
  • A smart city enables intelligent decision-making through leveraging information via technology, platforms, processes, and policies across its environments, infrastructures, systems, resources, and citizens.
  • A smart city operates as a seamlessly integrated platform where information links the various infrastructures, systems, organizations, and citizens’ goals and values.
  • A smart cities engage citizens in planning and design of public spaces and govern use of public resources through open and collaborative governance platforms that generates, and leverages, collective intelligence. 

In some respects the description resembles a vision statement with supporting principles or goals that make the vision of a smart city come to life. First, the overarching goal of having a smart city is that it is livable, resilient, and sustainable. These goals increase the value of the city and contribute positively to the lives of the citizens that interact with, and reside within, the city. Second, we must recognize these goals as a function of infusing information into the fabric of the city. Technological devices enable citizens to leverage information as they conduct their daily activities, while they also enable planners and designers to have accurate situational awareness about the city. Information is infused into the planning and design apparatuses as public sector projects are conducted. For example, the use of computational platforms and simulation technologies can enable city planners and designers think through various alternatives, test assumptions, and visualize the impacts of various interventions on critical outcomes. Through harnessing information, the smart city is able to conduct public projects in a highly effective and efficient manner. Third, smart cities use a wide assortment of information pipelines and platforms to integrate the often disparate physical and human sub-systems, infrastructures, and processes. Through building viable connections, information flows between the various parts of the city seamlessly so as to enable for real-time intelligent decision-making. Fourth, smart cities leverage the collective intelligence of its citizens, residents and, even transients (e.g. people who commute to work in the city) using participatory platforms. The smart city has viable vehicles and platforms through which its citizens can contribute to its governance processes and the future design of the city.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the definition and the elements of a smart city.