Smart Cities: Which one do you prefer?

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For some reason I am being presented at a lot of conferences as a ‘smart cities expert’. True, I know one or two things about cities. And I have also been involved in the evolution of the smart denomination that precedes the word city. But my point of view has always been slightly different from that of many of my colleagues in cities.

I am not going to go deep into the history of the term smart cities in this post. Let’s just say that most people only came to know the combination of the two words in the last couple of years. And the feeling that goes with it is one of a city that embraces new (digital) technologies to make city life more efficient (especially in the field of security, mobility and energy). Only few people realise that the current smart cities ‘movement’ is actually rooted in two movements that came to bloom in the 1980s and 1990s: the knowledge and innovation economy and smart growth/new urbanism of the Agenda 21 on sustainable development.

Based on those two strands a diversity of smart city definitions and concepts have been developed and tried out all over the world. Some are more focused on urbanism, some more on technology. Most projects are using a specific domain – a vertical – to try out new gadgets or new ways of working. Some make use of ‘the citizen’ as a potential user, some try to involve the citizen in the project to make sure that the right thing is being done. Some emphasize the importance of place and placemaking in the city of the future, some just focus on creating the most efficient infrastructure. There are only a couple of examples of cities that truly use the smart word to try to explicitly change the current system of urban governance to be fit for the future.

I have been thinking a lot about the next big thing. The megacities discourse that I am hearing here and there scares me a lot. Because it is a next step in objectifying human beings and scaling up control over society. And I have also been thinking a lot about a simplification of the types of smart cities that are popping up everywhere. And their possible effects. That is also the main reason that I started citiesofpeople. To help create the city of the future that we all want and to develop a model that actually works for that city.

So instead of a 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, … categorization, I tried to make two kinds of cities: a cold and a warm variety:

Cold Smart City:

  • Focus on (local) economic development – economic growth
  • Focus on city marketing and competition with other cities
  • Focus on ‘to control’, ‘to monitor’ and ‘to manage’
  • Distrust
  • Taps into a general feeling of fear for the future
  • Piecemeal change or systemic freeze
  • Efficiency – cost reduction
  • Short term innovation – pilots – projects
  • Operations – processes
  • Top down – hierarchy
  • Siloed – integration challenge
  • Technology and ‘things’
  • Surveillance capitalism
  • Role of the government: efficient service delivery, policy creator
  • Role of the citizen: consumer, user, object, potential danger
  • Neoliberal concepts
  • Centralised

Warm Smart City:

  • Focus on societal development – sustainability
  • Focus on solutions to local and global challenges
  • Focus on ‘empowerment’ and ‘rethinking’
  • Trust
  • Looks at the future in a positive way
  • Full systemic change
  • Effectiveness – societal advancement
  • Long term innovation – vision – structural change
  • Strategies – (social) innovation
  • Bottom-up – collaboration
  • Holistic – integrated
  • People and knowledge
  • Open governance
  • Role of the government: to enable, to consolidate the vision and to connect the dots
  • Role of the citizen: co-creator of the future city, denizen
  • Commons based concepts
  • Data and digital sovereignty – decentralized.

I did not intend to be as extensive as possible while writing these lists. The characteristics that are there are those that I can see. And they lead to completely different cities and societies.

I know in which kind of city/society that I want to live. Do you?

Let me know what you think

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