Smart City, Smart People

  • at 19-05-2014
    - Monday May 19, 2014

Technology is impacting every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not (or so it seems)


As technology strives to make the world around us 'smarter' what does this really mean and why do we need it ? A view from the perspective of the city . . .

Introduction to presentation @ Smart City Forum, Internet of Things Asia 2014, Singapore 

A Smart City is one that uses its resources as efficiently as possible, driven by the need and desire to transform cities into places that provide a better quality of life for its citizens 

The growing need for smarter cities is predominantly attributed to an unprecedented growth in urban population; “for the first time ever, the majority of the world's population lives in a city, and this proportion continues to grow” World Health Organization. ‘Smartness’ is being discussed as a key, predominantly technologically enabled, way to tackle an increasing pressure on natural resources essential in supporting this urban population growth in a healthy and sustainable way. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the number of urban residents is set to grow by nearly 60 million every year. By the middle of the 21st century, the urban population will almost double, increasing from approximately 3.4 billion in 2009 to 6.4 billion in 2050. The majority of urban population growth in the next 30 years will occur in cities of developing countries, nonetheless on average the rate of urban population growth in developing countries is slowing. However, in high-income countries the urban population is expected to remain largely unchanged over the next two decades, increasing from 920 million people to just over 1 billion by 2025. In these countries, immigration (legal and illegal) will account for more than two-thirds of urban growth. Without immigration, the urban population in these countries would most likely decline or remain static. World Health Organization

The following discussion presents a European perspective on Smart City developments, it is also a predominantly citizen-driven perspective, based on the assumption that the core role of the city is to provide the necessary conditions to support the sustainable and harmonious well-being of it’s residents. While some aspects of this discussion will be less regionally dependent – if you believe as I do that people share a set of universal, fundamental needs (one of my favorite references: "A Creative Perspective on Manfred Max-Neef’s Fundamental Needs" which incidentally provides a useful brainstroming framework) – the majority of factors that shape regional requirements and urban developments indicate that a specific context related approach is essential. You cannot fail to take into consideration the stage of Demographic Transition or variations in Culture and Ideology (such as views and behaviours relating to privacy and control, the role of the individual, family and community); or Political influence (local and national policies, power and decision making and related legislation); Economics (such as funding models, innovation prioritizations and population income levels) and Environmental aspects (existing infrastructures, availability of natural resources, extremities of weather conditions etc.).


Demographic transition and resources 

One distinguishing and influential characteristic of European cities is their stage of demographic transition, predominantly positioned in the latter stages of the shift from high birth rates and death rates to low birth rates and death rates. This means that the resource challenges being tackled at a local level are not related to the scaling up of resources management due to rapid population growth, but are more likely to be attributed to a shift in population balance where “the large generations born during the previous stages put a growing economic burden on the smaller, younger working population” (Demographic Transition theory). This implies a potentially critical and irreversible shift in balance between the financial resources available and the operational resources required to maintain or continue to improve the quality of life of it’s citizens, after all which city is going to accept (or thrive with) a decline in an already achieved level of quality and it's associated levels of consumption?


Smart city resources are both natural and human 

European cities do not only act on a local level but also on a national and a regional level, influenced in part by policies, legislation and funding mechanisms such as the Smart Cities and Communities initiative and Horizon 2020. The Strategic Technology Plan has for example been a key driver by setting European Union objectives to have 20 percent renewable energy and a 20 percent reduction in energy use by the year 2020 whilst developing towards a low carbon economy by 2050. The role of cities in achieving these goals has been heavily stimulated which may explain in part why many Smart City initiatives and discussions focus on energy resources management. While environmental aspects are clearly driving the desired transition from a fossil-based fuel system into a low-carbon system, the shifting economic balance caused by demographic transition and a need to secure an adequate level of energy autonomy from potentially politically volatile sources are also equally important drivers, if less prominently discussed.

Yet energy management alone is not enough to ensure a better quality of life for citizens. A more integrated view of the essential resources of a city includes not only the wider range of natural resources such as water, air and food but also and equally importantly are it’s human resources: People have a key role to play not only in enjoying but also providing a better quality of life for the citizens of a city.





The ingredients for wellbeing include culture, creativity and happiness

While Smart City definitions and initiatives tend to target more easily quantifiable functional and natural resource based aspects, some discussions can be found that highlight the value of people and what they are doing in relation to the development of a sustainable and desirable quality of life - in some cases also equating a measurable level of success to the level of economic growth of a city. These human factors of well-being and citizen engagement are however currently tending to linger on the fringes of the Smart City discussion, could this be a weak signal pointing to a future trend? Or is this yet another case of the tendency to veer towards hard quantitative facts rather than soft qualitative values?

Smart Citizens

One particulalry prominent and inspiring writer since 2002 on the collective themes of cities, architecture, design, media and culture is Dan Hill, currently Executive Director of Futures at the UK's Future Cities Catapult in particular his essay on the smart city; a 'manifesto' for smart citizens.


Jeremy Rifkin discussed the need for balance between culture and commerce already in 2000

From the beginning of human civilization to now, culture has always preceded markets. People create communities, construct elaborate codes of social conduct, reproduce shared meaning and values, and build social trust in the form of social capital. Only when social trust and social exchange are well developed do communities engage in commerce and trade. The Age of Access - The New Politics of Culture vs. Commerce (2000)

(incidentally Jeremy's most recent publication discusses the impact of technology on economic activity, suggesting that The "Internet of things" has the potential to push large segments of economic life to near zero marginal cost in the years to come, altering capitalism as we know it: How the Internet of Things is Killing Capitalism)


In 2002, Richard Florida presented his theory of a Creative Class as a key driving force for economic development in post-industrial cities. Independent studies have subsequently documented the considerable role of the creative class in regional economic development. In a study titled “Education or Creativity: What Matters Most for Economic Performance?” advanced statistical models were applied to compare the effects of the creative class and human capital across the 257 EU regions. 

There is a large consensus among social researchers on the positive role that human capital plays in economic performances. The standard way to measure the human capital endowment is to consider the educational attainments of the resident population, usually the share of people with a university degree. Florida (2002) suggested a different measure of human capital—the “creative class”—based on the actual occupations of individuals in specific jobs like science, engineering, the arts, culture, and entertainment. … Our results indicate that highly educated people working in creative occupations are the most relevant component in explaining production efficiency. What Critics Get Wrong About the Creative Class and Economic Development (2012)


In 2010 the European office of Global Policy Forum discussed various indicators of well-being in relation to the Millennium Development Goals:

The Happy Planet index (HPI)

The HPI Index is not a measure of people’s happiness but rather measures how environmentally efficient the population’s well-being is realized in a country.

In an age of uncertainty, society globally needs a new compass to set it on a path of real progress. The Happy Planet Index (HPI) provides that compass by measuring what truly matters to us – our well-being in terms of long, happy and meaningful lives – and what matters to the planet – our rate of resource consumption. (New Economic Foundation 2009) 

Gross National Happiness Index (GNH-Index)

Developed in the Kingdom of Bhutan the Gross National Happiness Index provides a more differentiated alternative to the HPI.

The GNH-Index comprises a comprehensive set of indicators from the following nine areas: 1. Psychological Well-being; 2. Time Use; 3. Community Vitality; 4. Cultural Diversity and Resilience; 5. Health; 6. Education; 7. Ecological Diversity and Resilience; 8. Living Standard; 9.Good Governance

Buen Vivir

The Latin American Buen Vivir (Good Life) principle pursues the goal of material, social and spiritual satisfaction among all members of a society, but not at the cost of the other members and the natural resources.

All individuals enjoy the same right to a life in dignity encompassing health, food, shelter, a healthy environment, education, a livelihood, recreation and social security. (Alberto Acosta, 2010)

From: Thinking Ahead: Development Models and Indicators of Well-being Beyond the MDGs, 2010 


Many more questions

At the moment there seem to be more questions than answers emerging when it comes to understanding the future path of Smart City developments. It is still early days and while the enabling technologies are certainly becoming more stable, interconnected and available, clarity on what to do with them still has a long way to go - a position succinctly captured in this frequently used quote from Cedric Price (British Architect from the 60's)

"Technology is the answer, but what is the question?"

And while ideas are still forming I will leave some of the questions that are due for further deliberation in the days, or weeks, to come . . . 

 Why is there an apparently overriding tendency to focus on the functional, operational and quantifiable aspects of the city?

Is the development and funding for Smart City innovations adequately balanced between enabling technology infrastructures and value creating applications and content development?

Should there be a greater involvement of the social sciences and the creative class in the development of future Smart City enablers and systems? 

How should a Smart City integrate and balance both the quantitative (functional) and the qualitiative (experiential) aspects of well being?

Can similarities be drawn in the way that other types of value creating organizations such as businesses are run, how they evolve, how they are led, and how their human resources and markets are managed towards thriving (or declining) as they balance operations with value creation?

Core sources of inspiration: Dan Hill's City of Sound, Smart Cities in Europe , Council:The Internet of Things 

© 2014 Creative Innovation Works