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Cities of Tomorrow

How and why 'smart communities' should be built

The smart cities movement is championing the belief that technological innovation and civic cooperation can lead to greater quality of life and goodwill toward fellow citizens. It embodies grand aspirations for a better tomorrow.

The International Institute for Management Development (IMD), a business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, operates a World Competitiveness Center dedicated to compiling the latest and most relevant data to help countries and companies achieve future prosperity. The center ranked 102 cities around the world in its first edition of the Smart City Index for 2019 – focusing on how citizens view efforts to make their cities smart.

“[Smart cities] embed some of the highest hopes of mankind through the promise of harnessing technology for better lives and social harmony; for some, however, they could incarnate the fears of ‘controlled lives’ in some kind of panopticons governed by artificial intelligence and automated devices,” the study’s authors wrote.

The researchers wanted to go beyond technological development for its own sake and take into account more humane concerns. What good is urbanistic and architectural ambition if it doesn’t improve social harmony?

The Smart Cities Council, a network of companies promoting the concept, defines a smart city as “one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.” Central to this mission is the Internet of Things: a system of interconnected computing devices that can collect and share data without human interaction. This could improve quality of life for citizens, reduce pollution, increase investment from international businesses, become more attractive to tourists and manage the costs of providing resources and services more efficiently.

Top 'Smart' Cities

1.       Singapore

2.       Zürich, Switzerland

3.       Oslo, Norway

4.       Geneva, Switzerland

5.       Copenhagen, Denmark

6.       Auckland, New Zealand

7.       Taipei City, Taiwan

8.       Helsinki, Finland

9.       Bilbao, Spain

10.     Düsseldorf, Germany

(Source: IMD 2019 Index)

How coordinated is the effort?

Christopher Hawkes, a senior director at Publicis Sapient in Zürich, Switzerland, ranked two on the IMD list, advises commodities and financial firms on digitally transforming their businesses. He said there’s an underlying question behind the digital transformation of cities: does it simply happen spontaneously, in which different organizations are driving change individually in silos, or is it part of a coordinated strategy and unified drive that encourages different businesses and organizations to digitalize?

Hawkes argued for the latter. He said ideally a centralized body with authority over various sectors, whether at a national or local level, would set key objectives.

“It’s very difficult for a single city to say, ‘We’re going to digitalize transportation,’ if that doesn’t fit with the state or national body’s agenda,” Hawkes said. “The more digital strategy can become part of the single overarching strategy and therefore a single, unified drive, the more likely it is to be successful.”

Antonia Maedel, manager of program management at Publicis Sapient, also based in Zürich, said to reach this goal governments or regulatory bodies should be involved in outlining an overall strategy.

“Looking at various initiatives across the EU it becomes clear that a high level of coordination can help motivate decision makers in cities to go further,” Maedel said.

“This in turn motivates industry leaders to also invest in these initiatives – given that it is expected that 70 percent of the global population will be living in urban areas, focusing on the needs and expectations of these people is also a significant economic opportunity.”

According to Maedel and Hawkes, it’s highly unlikely that cities will “smarten up” as the consequence of government mandate or private innovation alone. There’s a much higher chance of success, they said, if communities have a sense of common purpose: a coordinated effort toward digital innovation with a shared vision for future possibilities across various sectors and an ever-evolving blueprint for what’s next.

"It becomes clear that a high level of coordination can help motivate decision makers in cities to go further."
Antonia Maedel, Program management leader, Publicis Sapient

Size matters

With three exceptions – Singapore, Auckland, Taipei City – every entry in the top ten has fewer than 675,000 people. This suggests relatively small cities may have an advantage when it comes to becoming “smart” – fewer resources, but also less established infrastructure to renovate.

The European Commission (EC), the executive branch of the European Union, compiles an annual report that tracks indicators of digital transformation called the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). It measures how much EU member countries have digitized their economies and societies by examining five policy areas: connectivity, human capital, internet use, business digitization and digital public service. 

Rather than simply track digitalization, the EC actively participates in facilitating the process. Nearly two years ago, after a competitive application process, the EC launched a pilot program called the Digital Cities Challenge in which 41 cities would receive access to high-level experts on digital strategy and training on implementing digital policies to address economic growth and the public good.

Maedel said this resulted in a network of cities who have a “much more concerted and deeper commitment to driving digitalization in their home towns. Such an approach and such projects clearly show the benefit of concerted efforts on a policy level.”

Some countries have adopted official roadmaps toward nationwide digitalization. For instance, Austria has a federal strategy, bringing together all departments of government, that outlines roughly 150 planned measures and a set of guiding principles. These affirm digital education should start early for children and human rights apply in the digital world as well.

Person at digital commuting map

European Union's Most Transformed Countries

1.       Finland

2.       Sweden

3.       The Netherlands

4.       Denmark

5.       The United Kingdom

6.       Luxembourg

7.       Ireland

8.       Estonia

9.       Belgium

10.     Malta

(Source: Digital Economy and Society Index 2019)

Protecting privacy

It also acknowledges new challenges: protecting privacy from unwarranted surveillance, identifying and preventing cybercrimes and creating new jobs for workers displaced by automation. The authors posited that social values – not just technological progress – are important for successful digitization.

“Digitization requires joined-up thinking and action from us all. Just because something is technically possible does not mean that it is socially desirable. We must continue to decide on these issues,” the authors wrote. “Ultimately, even in the digital age people must always take responsibility for decision-making. Digitization therefore needs convincing visions and a clear regulatory and social policy framework to implement these visions.”

The philosophy underpinning smart cities combines what’s most promising about our future with what was most inspirational about our past. It imagines communities in which data is shared across networks via advanced technology to improve the lives of residents in manifold ways. It recalls moments in history when commitment to the greater good buoyed private innovation, and vice versa. It leaves room to dream of a better tomorrow.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh

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