What is a really smart city?

Avigdor Sharon

Following the buzz of “Smart Cities” over the past years, we see so many smart cities declarations around. This is an excellent trend as it shows that cities are busy renovating and improving, it shows that they care and it encourages other cities to follow. The “smart city” concept is calling for action – replacing outdated, inefficient structures and technologies with new ones, cutting costs using new tools, initiating sustainability-oriented projects. Even opening up and communicating with their citizens and with fellow cities.

But there are so many different definitions of smart cities, so many publications, advertisements and conferences that you may wonder what is really a smart city? how can my city stay ahead and truly shine?

Many cities are doing the basic necessary improvements that should be a common must today. Installing updated technology, computer networks, control cameras and sensors, LED lighting in the streets. Today, this is a basic transformation. Like upgrading from telegrams to email, from typing machines to digital keyboards, from fax to PDF documents. It should be a standard Improvement. It is probably not enough to make a city “smart”.

There are some good indices and measurements to the smartness of cities – to improvements in efficiency, security, digital services, mobility, operations, air quality, waste reduction. The indices are useful for finding the strong areas and the weak areas. They are very good for a comparison between cities. But what is the ultimate measurement? how can a city really make itself unique?

Put simply, a smart city should be a better city than it was before. Better in what? Can a polluted and dirty city be considered “smart” if it installed a sophisticated traffic control system? Can a city with traffic congestion be considered smart if it replaced all lighting to LED? Can a city with sun-scorched streets and lack of trees be considered smart if it created an exquisite business and innovation campus?

What Makes a city a smart city?

Eight years ago, smart cities were thought to be those with new smart technology for operations and control.

Four years ago, it was understood that smart cities are cities that provide efficient services for the benefit of their citizens. Technology allows better services but the citizens matter most.

Today, we show that smart cities are those that become attractive for creative, innovative, happy people. They are cities that provide a great overall experience in a great environment. They are productive, sustainable and resilient. To do this, technologies and services are very useful but are not enough. The urban experience as a whole must be compelling to attract the best talent.

Technologies are not smart. People are smart. The innovative companies, the engineers and designers that create new technologies are smart and cities will be smart to adopt them if they contribute to make the cities more livable, healthy, sustainable and if the resulting urban experience will draw smart people to the city.

It’s not just digital technologies. Green roofs, as an example, are very smart. Green roofs turn wasted real estate into gardens, meeting and resting havens, places to grow food, attract birds and bees, have a cafe or a classroom that overlooks the city, offer fresh air and natural sunlight. It is a better experience than sitting all day in the artificial environment of offices. The plants clean the air of pollutants, the light soil serves as a protective insulation for the building roof, acting actually as an air conditioning system, reducing the need for electricity. Some shopping centers have agricultural farms on their roof, selling fresh produce in the center and in the restaurants within it. This is smart. Some schools and libraries have sitting areas and open air classes on the roof. This is smart.

This example shows how elements such as green roofs affect many dimensions. They actually create a new ecosystem. Affecting business, society, the environment – all at the same time. Helping in lowering air-conditioning costs, producing food, offering leisure time and social meeting opportunities. This is smart and this is what the smart city is all about. A new ecosystem that serves residents, society, business and the quality of the natural environment, making the city attractive to residents and visitors alike.

A green roof at the Porter School of Environmental Studies, Tel Aviv University. Image: Avigdor Sharon

Image: A green roof at the Porter School of Environmental Studies, Tel Aviv University. Image: Avigdor Sharon

A city is a complex ecosystem. Many aspects of it are related and interdependent, It should be better in all of these aspects to become really attractive. It is the ecological balance and continuous flow of interactions that make a city alive, sustainable and attractive. A really smart city shines by drawing talent and increasing its population. A positive migration of talent from other cities is the ultimate measurement of a smart city.

And this can be achieved only through integrated planning and implementation. Not only by the municipality but also with the citizens. A smart city is a lively, livable, empowering city that breeds and attracts creative people. With a shared vision, shared learning and shared doing that includes all groups and ages, foster interaction and leave no one behind. A city where the elderly and experienced teach the young and the young generation teach back – Turning together needs and values into opportunities for smart sustainable growth.

(Post image: Pavement in Les Corts, Barcelona. Image: Avigdor Sharon)


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