Smart Cities Put People First, and People Want Technology

The Brookings Institution held a forum this week for urban planners, techies, and politicians on a topic that’s gained traction in recent years: “smart cities.”

Cohosted by Barcelona’s ESADE Business SchoolGetting Smarter About Smart Cities included panelists from Barcelona, Amsterdam, Edmonton, and Arlington.

A smart city is a term coined by IBM to describe a city that uses technology in various ways to better plan and manage the design, functions, and services of a city. The concept is generally thought of in terms of sustainability and economic efficiencies, but smart cities can use technology and data to improve healthcare, social welfare, and education. It’s a fairly utopian (or e-topian) idea, to be sure.

Transportation is a good entry point to the idea of the smart city. Many of us are aware of the benefits of smartphone apps that provide real-time bus and transit information. While the open data that makes these apps possible is certainly a key component in the role of smart cities, the conversation isn’t limited to apps and smartphones.

Proponents of smart cities ask us to imagine instead an electronic kiosk that allows residents of a neighborhood to see a visual representation of how congestion pricing would affect traffic on their streets. Or a method by which one can get a building permit without waiting in line at city hall. In an age where is looking into the possibility of package delivery via drones, anything is possible.

“At Brookings, we are believers in the promise of smart cities,” said Robert Puentes, senior fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. Puentes said the event’s purpose was to understand the rationale and promise of smart cities in a global context.

Smart cities are “integrated rather than compartmentalized,” Puentes stated. Puentes explained that integration of data and dismantling of silos are required for smart cities to thrive.

Manel Sanroma, chief information officer (CIO) of the Barcelona City Council, echoed this sentiment regarding the need to break down organizational silos. Cities themselves, Sanroma pointed out, are silos.

Chris Moore, CIO of the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, called smart cities a fundamental piece of a city’s long-term economic vision. Moore said technology has been critical to Edmonton’s global competitiveness. Moore detailed Edmonton’s current transformation of the city’s downtown warehouse district into “a center of creativity, innovation, and connection.”

Sanroma noted how his city, Barcelona, has been a leader in technological innovation in Europe. Barcelona recently hosted a Smart Cities Expo World Conference.

Jonathan Wareham of Barcelona’s ESADE Business School stated that, up until now, the dialog about smart cities “has been largely vendor driven,” designed to sell products and services made by the private sector to the public sector. This push-side focus has resulted in the discussion not being as critical as it should be, according to Wareham. Brookings’ forum looked at smart cities “from the buy side,” and with a dose of healthy skepticism.

Sanroma said a smart city puts the citizenry first, and the citizens want technology. They want the efficiencies, improvements, and reductions in bureaucracy that technology promises. In a smart city, the citizens are the end customers.

Katalin Gallyas, adviser to the city of Amsterdam, said that in Amsterdam the smart cities vision promotes sharing of ideas between European cities to create the best possible “smart architecture.” Gallyas is a leader of World Smart Capital, in which Amsterdam is a pilot city. World Smart Capital’s goal is to create urban innovations through digital technologies.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs or P3s) were enumerated by several panel members as a key ingredient in smart cities. Sanroma said that P3s are essential, because localities cannot become smart cities on their own. Still, Sanroma warned that a city’s focus needs to be on “partners, not providers.” Providers “have dollar signs in their eyes,” Sanroma said.

Sanroma said that cities should not simply overlay technology onto obsolete systems. Cities need to be “smart” about data and technology. Arlington’s CIO Jack Belcher echoed this sentiment, saying, “If you start a discussion with technology, you’ve lost the battle.”

Chris Vein, senior manager of the World Bank’s Information and Communication Technology Division and keynote speaker of the event, said that smart cities are about people. “Technology is the enabler, not the goal,” Vein said.

In a landscape of scarce resources, the smart-cities concept, with its promise of increased efficiencies and utopian ideals, has been a pretty easy sell to policy makers. With the continued work of organizations such as Brookings and our own Mobility Lab, we’re hopefully closer to this ideal becoming a reality.

Splash photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York on Flickr. Story photo by Stephen Chao on Flickr.

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