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Why we need smart cities

Key takeaways

  • The conversation about smart cities tends to focus on technology, but there’s a lot more to it.
  • We need to effect changes to systems, infrastructure and attitudes to realise the benefits that are key to keeping cities sustainable.
  • For potentially disruptive change to occur at such a scale, governments, industry and civil society must work together to ensure we’re smart about transitioning to smart cities.

Perhaps it’s best if I start with the most important point I’m going to make in this article, which is that a smart city is not about technology – it’s about transformation.

This may sound odd coming from someone who’s built his career on a platform of technology as a key enabler of human development. But too often, the conversation about smart cities focuses on technology as the key or only driver for change.

Decades of smart city experience across the globe has shown me, however, that understanding what citizens need is just as important as either enabling new digital tools to meet that need or creating sustainable business models.

But what an opportunity we have in Australia to do just that: create a model of smart city transformation that the rest of the world can learn from and adapt to their own needs.

How cool is that!

What a smart city is

To be honest, I’m not sure I like the phrase ‘smart cities’. Being smart about something, anything, rarely boils down to a single-factor competency. Cities are complex, and even the most promising new initiatives can fail to thrive in the absence of the right supporting frameworks.

Sustainable change relies on building systems and expertise so that everyone can collaborate and cooperate on improving the quality of life in their neighbourhood, city or country.

To me, a ‘smart’ city empowers the individual to be self-sufficient in his or her environment – to meet both their individual and collective needs – in a way that consumes the least resources.

Why we need smart cities

The outcome of our centuries-old model of city growth is skyrocketing inequality. We’re now in a situation wherein the political, economic and social environment is fractured, many citizens distrust elected officials to act on their behalf, and government bureaucracy is seemingly unable to provide efficient and effective services. Needless to say, that’s undesirable on many levels.

The crux of the problem? We continue to build cities that are net contributors to the very problems we seek to solve. Our cities get bigger, commute times get longer, the impact on our environment gets worse. What do we do? We build bigger roads and provide services further away from where people live and don’t take cogent environmental action.

This is a global challenge. Examples in China, India, Africa and here in Australia vividly illustrate the need for smarter solutions to deal with massive population growth, rural to urban migration, and resource depletion.

We need to transform our cities. Not just once, but continuously.

The future of smart cities

An unstoppable process of effortless and endless reinvention must be set in motion. Technology enables reinvention. Exciting solutions are beginning to emerge from R&D in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and nano- and bio-technologies. Science too, is generating insights – revealing unforeseen problems and opportunities. Evolving models for innovation and entrepreneurship are ensuring more promising projects get off the ground. Together, these tools enable the social, economic and political success we enjoy today.

But, as much as technology plays an important role in facilitating the operation of a smart city, deploying every novel gadget across your municipal infrastructure isn’t smart at all.

What smart cities do is create platforms for the community to organise, find new ideas, test them, and create positive changes in their neighbourhood. Smart cities go to their citizens for input, apply agile methodologies and create new models of sustainability and scalability.

That’s what a smart city does, and that’s what makes it smart. The world is full of living examples, too – from Barcelona to San Francisco, from London to Sydney. (What they’re doing, and how, will be the topic of my next post.)

Challenges to overcome

Bridging the gap between where we are now and what can be might seem like a tall order, particularly on account of how disruptive – socially and economically – broad-scale change can be.

There will be an inevitable reshuffling of the power structures as they presently stand, producing new winners and losers. It won’t be easy to convince those in a winning position today to relinquish that advantage, regardless of the ultimate benefit to society.

History has taught us that government cannot do this alone. It’s going to require champions across government, industry and civil society to make a convincing case as to why we need to start doing things differently. I believe it’s important to start reshaping the narrative about what ‘smart cities’ really means toward a more holistic perspective.

Because, ultimately, when I say ‘winners and losers’, I’m speaking purely in terms of short-term considerations. In the long run, everybody wins; because, for whatever profits or power that initially slip away, the new situation – once it’s established – will be one in which inefficiency and waste is minimised, and everybody will enjoy a greater return on their efforts.