Voices of Digital Communities

‘Smart’ or ‘Intelligent’ – Which Should a City Try to Be?

Technology, leverage and a better future.

by / December 27, 2012

Smart Cities are a big deal right now.   The European Union has a big and well-funded Smart Cities initiative.  Completely new smart cities are rising from the desert in oil-powered Middle Eastern economies.   In Asia’s often malfunctioning mega-cities, new urban oases (aka smart cities) are promising to replicate the efficiency and livability of the industrial world’s best urban centers for the privileged few. 

clientuploads/Images/Bell-Blog-Reboot-Comm-2.jpgSo here’s a question: what is the difference between a city being smart and being intelligent?  It sounds like a riddle – but it’s far more important.  

Creating a Smart City is like automating a factory.  It is about using information and communications technology (ICT) to do more with less.  In one end goes a lot of specialized ICT – sensors, actuators and servers run by sophisticated software developed and installed by brainy engineers.  Out the other end comes better, faster and cheaper performance.  Once-murky processes become visible and measurable.  Turnaround gets faster and more reliable.  Costs fall permanently because you are more efficient and need fewer people to run things.  Good for your factory, problematic for your people.   

Becoming an Intelligent Community is profoundly different.  It is about using ICT to create new competitive advantages for your economy, to solve big, hairy social problems, and to extend and enrich the value of your culture.  The goal is to do more with more: to generate more economic energy in the form of new employment from new employers.  To use ICT to break down social and cultural barriers that hold back part of your population, so that they can participate in the knowledge-based digital economy.  To turn local culture into a product for the global economy, and to preserve treasured languages, histories and ways of live that give life meaning.  ICT, properly applied, can’t help creating efficiencies, so Intelligent Communities also get better, faster and cheaper performance.  But that is a side effect of far more meaningful change. 

There is a potent word that comes to us from finance.  Leverage.  If you have ever borrowed money to buy something big and important, you have used it. The home mortgage that lets you live in a nice place where your family prospers and your kids receive a great education – even though you did not have the financial wherewithal to buy that home – that’s leverage.  Pushed to excess, it can also have a very dark side, as the financial crisis has so recently proven.

Being an Intelligent Community is about using ICT to leverage a better future for your town, city or region, so that it can have more and do more of all the things that make life rewarding. Being a Smart City is about squeezing more out of the assets you have by measuring better and responding better.  Being a smart city is about making the past – the accumulation of your physical infrastructure and government processes – work better. Being an Intelligent Community is about seizing a new and greater destiny.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.