Smart Cities

The ‘Smart City’ can be seen as an umbrella concept that essentially describes a shift in ‘urban paradigm’ as propelled by the digital revolution. Although no unique definition exists, the concept of Smart City is usually understood in close connection with digital technologies and their potential to improve, optimise and innovate services, as well as to increase citizens’ quality of life and environmental performance.

Digital experiments in cities are not new; however, more recent and disruptive digital innovations such as Internet of Things, big data, artificial intelligence and distributed ledgers have opened the door to radical new ways for transforming the way we live and experience our cities. Per se, the Smart City points to a holistic city vision, where ‘smartness’ permeates the different components of the urban system. A 2014 study from the European Parliament identified six axes that characterise the smart city: smart economy, smart mobility, smart environment, smart citizens, smart living, and smart governance (European Parliament 2014). From another perspective, at European level the concept of smart city now largely underpins ongoing policies for energy efficiency and climate change, witnessing its strategic application for promoting environmentally sustainable economies and societies. Furthermore, the pervasiveness of the data economy, which largely stands as the bedrock of the smart city, is increasingly at the centre of urban regeneration processes, whether through the (re)creation of intelligent buildings and neighborhoods, or through the creation of innovation districts and hubs for tech start-ups and enterprises.

Becoming a smart city not only requires heavy investments in physical infrastructures and digital assets; more crucially, it demands the capacity to attract high level knowledge capital as well as to enable a vibrant local ecosystem of research and innovation. Boyd Cohen, a smart cities expert, explains the development of smart cities according to three main waves: the tech-driven smart city (or smart city 1.0), which has mainly seen the predominant initiative of tech start-ups and large IT corporations; the municipality-driven smart city (or smart city 2.0), where local governments have started to take an active step to channel ‘smartness’ towards citizens’ needs; and the citizens-led smart city (or Smart City 3.0), where citizens are actively involved and engaged in the co-creation and co-production of solutions, and where the development of smart city strategies goes hand-in-hand with open innovation approaches (Cohen et al. 2017).

However, the concept of smart city has attracted its share of critics and concerns. Examples like the massive installation of cameras in New York City after 9/11, China’s experiments with facial recognition in public spaces, or the recent Toronto Quayside project, all witness the possible, dangerous drift of the smart city towards mass surveillance and control, privacy violations and algorithmic discrimination, posing a major question mark around ‘who’ owns the major assets of the 21st century - i.e. data. Moreover, it is worth recalling here the risks of individualisation brought about by digital technologies, platforms and labour, which may dramatically shrink physical interactions and the demand for public spaces. Echoing Garrett Harding and further on the work developed by Nobel Prize Elinor Ostrom related to the commons, this may turn into the tragedy of the smart city’ that, in the name of efficiency and performance, risks alienating citizens from their own city.

New governance frameworks that demand increasing coordination and cooperation are key enablers for the flourishing of ‘smartness’ in urban environments (Misuraca et al. 2010; Gil-Garcia 2014). ICT-enabled governance could provide all actors with better evidence (i.e. data) to improve decision-making and service delivery, facilitate direct democracy and foster agile and resilience approaches. ‘Smart governance’ is also key to citizen engagement and participation in the co-creation and co-production of services, allowing to shift beyond the more traditional customer-driven approaches (Janssen and Estevez 2013). Cities such as Barcelona and Helsinki have meaningfully engaged with this challenge, developing smart city strategies articulated around core values of data sovereignty, open access and ethical digital standards that also account for the emerging do-it-yourself (DIY) practices of makerspaces and local digital-savvy communities.

Many cities across the globe have articulated Smart City strategies that encompass multiple sectors and urban domains. Reykjavik has been ranked 5th in the 2019 IMD Smart Cities Index, thanks to an innovative environmental smart city strategy on public transportation. Through the online consultation forum ‘Better Reykjavik (2016), the city also fosters citizen engagement and involvement in proposing ideas for service improvement. Paris also emerges as a front runner, with a long term smart city strategy aimed at replacing the entire bus fleet with electric or natural gas vehicles by 2050. London stands as the highest-ranking European city, thanks to a comprehensive strategy that encompasses human capital attraction, mobility, economy, governance, urban planning and international outreach.

The European Commission has also been acting on the forefront of change, supporting member states and regions in developing smart specialisation strategies, as well as via pioneering initiatives such as the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities and the smart-city focus in Horizon 2020.

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