What is a Smart City?
A concept lost in translation?
The term ‘smart city’ is poorly defined, which is creating confusion and uncertainty for many UK cities. The variety of views about what a smart city is has resulted in broad definitions with no focus on specific technologies or sectors (see Box 1). What most smart city definitions have in common, however, is that they consider the use of new technologies (usually ICT) and data as the means to solve the city’s economic, social and environmental challenges.
Box 1: Smart cities definitions
- The UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) considers smart cities a process rather than a static outcome, in which increased citizen engagement, hard infrastructure, social capital and digital technologies make cities more liveable, resilient and better able to respond to challenges.2
- The British Standards Institute (BSI) defines the term as “the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens”.3
- IBM defines a smart city as “one that makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to better understand and control its operations and optimize the use of limited resources”.4
- Cisco defines smart cities as those who adopt “scalable solutions that take advantage of information and communications technology (ICT) to increase efficiencies, reduce costs, and enhance quality of life”.5
- UK citizens tend to consider a smart city as clean, friendly and has good transport connections. Other words they associate with smart cities (although less frequently) include “technology”, “connected”, “internet” and “modern”.6
- According to the Manchester Digital Development agency, “a ‘smart city’ means ‘smart citizens’ – where citizens have all the information they need to make informed choices about their lifestyle, work and travel options”.7
Smart initiatives can be small or large scale and range from bike sharing to integrated operations centres, while the number of stakeholders involved can be so numerous (city councils, technology companies, citizens, universities and charities) that the vision for a smart city changes depending on whom you ask.
As a result, the concept is poorly defined and understood, and is at risk of sitting alongside other well-used but rarely defined notions like ‘liveability’ and ‘sustainability’.8
Smart City initiatives can be broadly classified under two main approaches: top down and bottom up.
Top down or technology centric approaches are associated with pre-defined offerings. Cities adopting this approach become smart by integrating data gathered from different kinds of censors (smart meters and CCTV cameras amongst others) into a single virtual platform in order to manage city operations more efficiently, often working with technology companies to take advantage of already developed products or software. Examples of this include Glasgow’s planned Integrated Operation Centre.
New cities such as Songdo in South Korea and Masdar in the United Arab Emirates have been developed using a ‘top down’ approach; they are being designed from scratch and built using technology-enabled infrastructures.8 However, while interesting, these types of large-scale, top down projects are not relevant or applicable for many old and well-established UK cities as they depend on a blank canvas. In most cases, wide-scale top down approaches to smart cities stretch far beyond UK cities’ financial and technical capabilities and many of these projects do not respond to their needs.
The bottom up approach emphasises the use of new technologies (for example, social media, websites, mobile applications or censoring technologies) and new data (becoming available mainly through open data platforms or censors) as a means to enable citizens to devise solutions, acquire new skills through online learning and improve their interaction with public authorities. Such initiatives include open data platforms that allow the development of new mobile applications or online crowdfunding platforms to fund innovative projects.10 By making citizens more engaged in civic life through online platforms, it is also argued that bottom up initiatives can encourage a “more direct form of local democracy” as David Willets, the Minister of State for Universities and Science recently stated.11
Within both approaches there are those that tend to associate smart cities with terms such as healthy, vibrant, pleasant, clean and friendly.6 Cycling, car-free town centres and improved public transport are examples of this tendency. More literally, others focus on citizens’ skills and qualifications-levels to describe how smart a city is.13
So far UK cities, along with community organisations and social entrepreneurs, have tended to favour the bottom up technologies approach to smart cities. This is reflected in the rapidly increasing number of such projects being established across the country. These range from open data platforms in cities such as London, Bristol and Leeds (see case studies 1, 2 and 6) to interactive websites in London and online platforms that match skills with business needs, such as Peterborough’s Visual Career Pathways project.14 They also include citizens using censors such as smart meters to become more aware of their energy consumption and save money (such as in Bristol).
In recognition of this confusion, the British Standards Institute (BSI) recently released the Smart Cities Framework (commissioned by the Government) which aims to provide cities with some guidance on how to implement smart strategies. Without being sector specific, the framework sets out a wide set of principles and recommendations related to leadership and governance, procurement, and digital inclusion, among others.15
Whilst this represents a positive step in creating a common framework for all the different players and interests to organise around, it is still too soon to evaluate its effectiveness in providing direction to UK cities on this agenda.