by Dr Anthony Kent, Lecturer Sustainability and Urban Planning, RMIT 

As smart city technology continues to develop at exponential rates, cities are looking at how to best integrate the new technologies into their communities. Here, Dr Anthony Kent, RMIT Lecturer and co-author/editor of the new book Smart Cities for Technological and Social Innovation, shares his thoughts and findings on the integration of smart cities, as well as the factors guiding the global smart city change.

One of my favourite academic authors is the geographer David Harvey, and one of his notable assertions is that we should have the right to the city, ‘an active right to make the city different, to shape it more in accord with our heart’s desire’. 

This, it seems to me, is really smart. Which brings me to smart cities. I had the good fortune recently to edit a book on the subject, while co-authoring some chapters myself, which draws on case studies from several continents. I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way and in this brief piece I’d like to share with you some of my key observations. 

To be specific, I’ve been asked for my views on what is a desirable way for cities is to integrate smart city characteristics into communities. I would begin by putting it a little differently. I would ask instead, how do communities integrate smart cities? There are important reasons for this distinction that I will briefly cover and from this important point, several basic principles follow.  But first, some caveats. 

There is no such thing as a Smart City template that can be wheeled out and imposed in a variety of locations. Cities are path dependent, which means they have their own histories. These histories will guide what comes after. What you see today is a result of complex forces from the past. This means the relationship between government, market and citizens will always vary, in some cases tremendously. Expressions of the smart city can be introduced by strong centralised governments with a tradition of intervention, or they can come from the ground up from ordinary citizens.

However, cities that follow one route disproportionately to the other inevitably lead to an imbalance. Ground up initiatives alone rarely get beyond a kind of expression of fleeting insurgency; measures that are too top down result in lack of trust and are usually authoritarian.

This is not to say we are bound by the past so much as guided by it but that doesn’t mean we can arrogantly predict the future either. I would just settle with the more reassuring position that smart cities are a work in progress. We don’t know in advance how they will turn out in the end because their form is subject to political battles, with the societies in which they emerge heavily politicised.

They operate within or alongside social forms that vary in their expression and that change. Smart cities are an idea, or set of ideas, and a series of actions that sit alongside and interact with other ideas and other actions. We find them in democracies, but democracies themselves are undergoing change. We find them in authoritarian nations, but these too are subject to instability. No two smart cities are the same because of their history and because of the other powerful forces they co-locate with.

Keeping in mind these key principles – no two smart cities are alike; how they turn out is a reflection of the past; their future course is unset – puts us in a nuanced position to consider the way forward.

But does this mean that we have little or no influence over that way forward, that we will always struggle to know a good smart city when we see one and that no basic underlying principles can apply? I don’t think so. What then does success look like? The first overriding principle has already been stated. 

We should assert that communities integrate smart cities rather than smart cities integrate communities (and by communities, I mean city dwellers active together, not as developers, nor as politicians, nor in fact as any sub-group, but in their capacity as citizens acting together as a demos). Then we will find that it is the community that decides what type of smart city is desirable.

But further, we need all three basic triple bottom line principles, plus one. Smart cities should encourage economic development by linking jobs seekers with jobs and by enhancing the benefits of connections between firms and between firms and customers. They should encourage environmental protection by providing critical real time information to citizens, while drawing on the local knowledge provided by those citizens. They should be an expression of social innovation, where people work together in order to solve complex problems and find better ways of doing things. 

Finally, the plus one, they should make democratic participation easier – and more democratic – by linking representatives with constituents and constituents with decision making processes.

In all these examples, the point is that the technology, whatever form it takes, should follow these objectives, not the other way around. And these building blocks are non-negotiable. If any one of them is taken out of the equation, smart cities cease to be a comprehensible, comprehensive, working plan for a city and instead start to resemble a series of ‘bits and pieces’ offerings, usually contradicting each other.

These sound like aspirational ideas. However, the book provides examples from different countries of how smart cities can work with the building blocks in unison, and where they don’t, identifies the gaps and leads us to reflect on the work required to fill them. If smart cities are not an end-state but a work in progress, that is a good thing. It means we do indeed retain the right to channel them at least in the direction of our heart’s desire.

Smart Cities for Technological and Social Innovation – 1st Edition – Elsevier

Smart Cities for Technological and Social Innovation establishes a key theoretical framework to understand the implementation and development of smart cities as innovation drivers, in terms of lasting impacts on productivity, livability and sustainability of specific initiatives. This framework is based on empirical analysis of 12 case studies, including pioneer projects from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and more.

To access the book, click here, or go to www.elsevier.com 

If you’d like more information, or to connect with Dr Anthony Kent, you can reach him at [email protected]

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