Blog: 10 November 2017What is a ‘Smart City’?

It is tempting to think that ‘Smart Cities’ and the plethora of implications this name implies, are the answer to our urban challenges in the modern era; a silver bullet that might solve all our housing, transport, technical, infrastructure and climate change challenges. 

But what exactly is a Smart City? And how do we overcome what, at times, feels like a stifling fear of the scale of this challenge/opportunity, to motivate and empower people to contribute? How do we ensure that the right opportunities are maximised and that policy does not drive inappropriate change?

In my mind, Smart Cities are (or should be) driven by three key steps, each of which can involve technology:

  1. The collection of data (whether statistical or qualitative) in ways that, to a degree, was not possible before.
  2. Transparent analysis of this data to encourage innovation and inform potential interventions that might flow from them.
  3. Collaboration to drive these interventions, to address issues and/or capitalise on opportunities.


People are central to this. Transparency of data alongside engagement with business and local communities is essential, as is a broad strategic approach. For example, Bristol is targeting ‘Smart Green’ and ‘Smart Inclusive’ as part of its strategy, whilst Belfast City Council’s is grounded in substantial engagement.

If we follow these three steps, recognising people are at the centre, we are understanding real issues fully before we begin to develop a solution or a policy to tackle that issue. If we do not, we are surely developing technology for technology’s sake, rather than thinking critically? Are we not at risk of policy jumping ahead of the Smart City’s evolution, pre-empting the data we might be able to mine and predicting potential issues, without the data to support or inform it, nor the mature means for collaboration across sectors?

A Smart City needs to embrace the critical consideration and smart use of technology at all three stages and this approach needs to be driven. This is not about a top down governance, but about identifying an issue and offering a solution. And this needs leadership which is comfortable with complexity and therefore encourages and facilitates collaboration. Leadership which brings people together to actively look at innovative ways to tackle issues and evolve policy as a result, while also considering solutions that are cross-boundary. It is therefore clear to see how well devolution and City Deals fit, when you set out these requirements.

Posted with the following keywords:
Infrastructure, Smart Cities