The concept of the smart city has been around for over a decade, and momentum towards building and developing them continues to grow. However, as cities rush to adopt exciting new technologies, there is a danger of losing track of a city’s priorities. Dr Sarah Barns, Urban Digital Strategist for Sitelines Media & Esem Projects, reminds us that every solution must stem from a clearly articulated strategy.

Differentiating between approaches to smart city developments

With so many different approaches to developing smart cities, it is important to be able to differentiate between different types of initiatives in order to evaluate their success relative to their unique objectives, and their relevance to one’s own priorities.

Dr Barns cites two major approaches: those mostly led or initiated by a tech company or data platform, and those led by public actors.

“Both, of course, will require partnerships— between government, private sector, universities and communities,” Dr Barns said.

“The success of these partnerships will usually define the success of the initiative; this goes to the heart of why smart city projects can be challenging.”

Dr Barns said she finds asking a series of questions about an initiative’s data governance helps her differentiate between them.

“Is a smart city project or pilot helping or hindering a city become more ‘data savvy’? Are there effective policies in place to ensure cities are being equipped to make the most intelligent use of urban data, balancing privacy and security with open engagement and broad use of data by different agencies and the community?”

Impact does not always mean visibility

Dr Barns noted that smart city initiatives will be driven by a local agenda, which leads to different priorities for investment.

One such example: “A lot of smart city projects are fuelled by an economic development agenda, which means smart technology can be used to upgrade a particular precinct to a set of potential high-yield tenants,” she said.

Others will focus more on public safety, or waste management, which may translate into more subtle integrations of IoT into public services, or lighting.

This second type of initiative may not be very visible in the public domain— their presence may be more subtle. However, Dr Barns believes they help governments do their work better, accounting for their popularity in countries like Australia.

As such, a subtler initiative does not necessarily translate to a less impactful result.

The shifting sands of smart city models

To make the field even more complex, a lot of different smart city models have come in and out of vogue.

Dr Barns suggests the change from ‘smart cities 1.0 to smart cities 2.0’ came about when industry and policy makers questioned the ‘smart cities in a box’ model, usually dated to the early 2010s, whereby a company like IBM, Cisco and others would promote a smart city management platform.

This shifted the focus to “more ‘bottom up’ planning that looked to respond on the ground to community needs, giving rise to the ‘smart city 2.0’ concept,” she said.

Dr Barns believes a similar reactionary transformation is underway with the rise of IoT, evidenced in public opposition to data governance.

“The controversies surrounding Quayside, Sidewalk Labs’ proposed smart city development in Toronto, show how wider public attention towards companies’ use of citizen data is moving more centre stage in public acceptance of smart city initiatives,” she said.Smart Cities 2019


Dr Barns cited the Hudson Yards development in New York as another example of how data policies can cause controversy when applied in the public domain. When a company claimed sole ownership of any recording featuring the public artwork titled ‘Vessel’, it prompted a massive outcry from the public who saw the terms as inappropriate for a public space.

“More and more, the spotlight is turning to how companies are using personal data, with more and more concerns about surveillance, data privacy and also the privatisation of public data assets,” Dr Barns said.

“Cities like Barcelona, one of the forerunners in the smart cities movement, are now openly embracing ideas about data sovereignty and the need for a ‘new deal on city data’.

“This means thinking about city data as a public asset, and translating ideas about shared public spaces to the data realm, informed by ideas about public benefit and inclusivity. I call this a ‘data smart’ approach to smart city development.”

Dr Barns says it will be interesting to see how the initiative develops, and what other cities will follow Barcelona’s lead.

The Toronto, New York and Barcelona examples testify to the centrality of the public in determining the aims and parameters of smart city initiatives. If they disapprove, they will show it.

Determine the core strategies and priorities… and stick to them

For Dr Barns, the benefits are obvious for cities that become more intelligent about how they are run, integrate technology solutions and respond more proactively to the needs of their communities. However, the most innovative technology can still be implemented poorly.

“In the rush to adopt smart city programs, there can be a tendency to use IoT solutions in a quite disconnected way from other city initiatives, without necessarily linking initiatives to the broader strategic priorities of a city,” Dr Barns cautioned.

“While starting with pilots is always good – start small, and grow tall – too often we see one-off initiatives that aren’t evaluated in ways that can support other programs or initiatives, or be extended beyond the initial pilot.”

So what is the key for the successful implementation of smart city programs?

“Paying close attention to the core strategies and priorities of a city or community, and designing technology solutions to address these, supported by agile methods of development, is paramount,” Dr Barns said.

“To be effective custodians of our public spaces, cities need to figure out how best to manage the data assets of their communities in ways that serve the long term needs of the communities they serve.

Dr Sarah Barns will be speaking at the Smart Cities 2019 Conference on 30-31 May in Melbourne. In her presentation, What kind of city do we want to build?, she will argue that if ‘smart cities are the answer’, it is imperative that we ask: what is the question, and who will help us answer it?