Smart city: 3 truths and a lie for urban planners

Skepticism is all that encompasses the research on the present. Without the continuous feedback loop that goes back and forth across time, any research on the present can be full of ambiguities, fear for the unknown, but still full of hope that current arguments can construct future theories. It is in this sense of embracing changes, the smart city becomes a challenging topic for architects and urbanists.

Many academic disciplines such as sociology, finance, investments, anthropology, policymaking, sustainability, etc. speak today about this topic. In fact, the smart city can be a topic for speculation in all and none of them. However it is still present everywhere in daily life, and it counts a large number of participants and cities that enter in the ‘smart’ world. The contradictions it raises as a topic, the vagueness it encompasses as a term, but its extreme popularity and fast insertion in daily life, all state its inner nature. It is definitely not a concept that is neutral or passive but a topic highly pervasive in the discussions for new projects for the city.

So after a decade of talking about the smart city let’s look at some common misconceptions and some truths:

Truth num. 1: The smart city is not about technology..!

The smart city became a very popular topic in the last decade. It has its origins in the spatial clusters of the ‘innovation environments’ and the ‘knowledge clusters’, models that existed long before the digital component becomes a ‘must’ in global cities.  It describes top down or bottom up ‘educational’[1] processes that act as the strategic device to change modern urban production factors (Komninos, 2015). More specifically, the smart city promotes a concept for urban performance that does not depend only on the city’s endowment of hard infrastructure, but also, on the availability and quality of knowledge communication and social infrastructure.

*The evolution of the smart city literature. (Source: Ph.D. V.Geropanta)

As such, although its main focus seems to be on ICT infrastructure, in reality, it expresses a new system of innovation, based on the production of creativity, from citizens and users living in the city. It is about the kind of resources that citizens now have that empowers them to contribute to urban change and live in a better, more effective way in the city.

Truth num. 2: The smart city is not a new architectural form or style..!

What this shift would really mean for our built world is still under observation. Is the city as we know it today deeply changing when transformed into a smart city? And if so, then in which ways make it visually comprehensible? A very positive or very negative answer would sound a dangerous claim. For sure, the insertion of information and communication technologies is a process that did not exist at all some decades ago, and the same stands for spin-offs or the production of new services as a new way of thinking about work and living.

At the same time, the various implementation of the smart city strategies confirms the existence of a thread linking knowledge infrastructure to the city design. In fact, whole new districts are created to serve the ICT evolution, and new means of digital ‘zoning’ is changing the conception of the traditional urban tissue. These areas are characterized by centrality, localized density, distance and proximity, and notions of relation and juxtaposition (Geropanta, 2016).

However, these all do not mean that new forms are born, or are relevant in the discourse. Beyond the general architectural thinking that is behind knowledge infrastructure and the city, this statement is grounded in a similar way of conceiving and managing the role, which architecture could have. The problem is that unless we talk about a new city, we barely talk about a city change and a city transformation.

* Image Barcelona, Smart City

Truth num. 3: Without the city, ICT, and Innovation there is no Smart City…but is that all?

“In every definition, you will find always three components – the city, ICT, and innovation” (Komninos,2016). These are components that are interconnected and without these three components, we cannot really call a project smart.

The first component (the city) is suggested as the complex multi-layered covers of human activity and human management. These are the social layer, the economic, the agglomerated layer, the physical layer, buildings constructions infrastructure, the political layer, administration, and capacity – management capability).

The second component (ICT) also it can be described in terms of layers: broadband communications, networks, fiber, video cells wi-fy etc. It can also be described in terms of access instruments (the pc, ipads, smartphones,  google glasses, projecting info).

All over these layers, we have infrastructure: we have the software, application infrastructures, a platform dedicated software and more generic – on the top we have electronic layers.

In the third component (innovation) there are many different components – because innovation is about networking and communication capabilities. Here, we have clusters; we have technology districts, innovation systems, institutional systems, users systems innovation, local innovation, global innovation – a lot of layers also in that.

So when you think of all the layers of the three components you understand that this is an extremely complex situation in all of that, because all of these components change very quickly. Considering also the technological evolution: Web 1 (one-way interaction) Web 2 (communication – content management systems), crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, the sensors, the cloud it becomes clear that the human adaptability and relevance is the most important for the future of the topic.

*Source: Urenio.org, entered 19/11/2018

The lie: We have experience in dealing with the smart city, and we will live better in the 21sth century..!

We may believe that implementing a smart city project will help us enter in the 4th industrial revolution as winners. It will not.

The cyber connection helps our cities perform better. Cities become more effective and ICT offer opportunities for ameliorating life quality. However, the actual experience is not a recipe for any future step. Unless we invent a way to follow up the technological revolution, we might risk that in the near future robots will do our jobs, and we will not offer something new to the specific economic model.

So what do we do? How do we remain relevant in the future? In my opinion, learning how to constantly learn and adapt is a good starting point. The technological revolution requires also an educational revolution, and I think that is what will help us live better in the 21st century.

At the end of the day… the smart city is about citizen’s creativity and citizen’s knowledge, so the focus should be on citizens and users.

Notes

[1] ‘Educational’, in the sense, that these processes generate the need for technological knowledge and the use of large data and information.

[2] The OECD, the Eurostat Oslo Manual (2005), the Horizons, and many others create in-depth research on smart cities, drafting legal and policy documents, presenting findings and providing industry-specific legal advice to the senior lawyers and liaising with partners and stakeholders.

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