FutureStructure

Cities Need to Rethink 'Smart City' Strategies, Report Says

Some smart city ideas have taken a wrong turn, too often emphasizing expensive hardware rather than cheaper solutions using the Internet.

by / June 18, 2015
In the Netherlands, Rotterdam citizens were frustrated with the lack of safe crossing of a highway -- which led them to crowdfund the Luchtsingel wooden footbridge, where each donor has his or her name engraved on a plank. Flickr/Frans Schouwenburg

A report released June 18 claims many cities need to reevaluate their “smart city” strategies.

Called Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up, the report claims that some smart city ideas have taken a wrong turn, too often emphasizing expensive hardware rather than cheaper solutions using the Internet. It also notes that cities are too often showcasing technologically interesting ideas rather than responding to citizen’s real needs. As a result, many smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promises, resulting in high costs and low returns.

The report, by UK innovation foundation Nesta, praises cities for recognizing the huge potential for digital technologies to improve how they work, but suggests they need to go beyond the simplistic habits of "technology push."

“Cities need to combine the best of new generations of technology that can use data to coordinate, analyze and target, while also involving citizens much more closely in shaping how cities can work,” the report states. “Successful smart cities of the future will combine the best aspects of technology infrastructure while making the most of the growing potential of ‘collaborative technologies’, and above all the citizens who power them.”

The report cites four common mistakes cities often make in their smart city strategy:

  1. starting with the technology rather than the challenge;
  2. insufficient use or generation of evidence;
  3. lack of awareness of how others are trying to improve cities; and
  4. allowing little role for citizen engagement.

To be successful, the report suggests cities need to run people-centered smart city pilots. For example, they might set up a civic innovation lab to drive innovation in collaborative technologies; use open data and open platforms to mobilize collective knowledge; and involve smaller companies and civil society organizations in smart city pilots.

The report also emphasizes the need for cities to take human behavior as seriously as technology, and to invest in smart people, not just smart technology. 

“Without the ability to interpret data and understand how and why it is collected, there is a serious risk that it will be misinterpreted or ignored by city government employees,” the report states. “City governments should invest in training to give all staff a baseline understanding of data handling as well as hire data specialists with advanced skills.”

The report suggests smart city pilots also invest in digital skills for citizens, such as CoderDojo, a global movement of community-based programming clubs for young people, and hackathons, which teach people how to use open data.

Finally, the report examines several cities using Internet of Things (IoT) technology, such as a pilot in Barcelona that’s using sensors on trash bins to test whether the routes of refuse collection vans can be optimized by only sending them to full bins; a pilot in Glasgow that’s testing whether sensors on streetlights will save energy by allowing lights to automatically turn on and off when people walk past them at night; and a smart building pilot in London that aims to help businesses reduce electricity costs by intelligently monitoring electricity usage.

The report warns that although IoT is likely to become an important part of how cities operate in the future, it is not something that cities can currently invest in and expect to see immediate returns.