Meeting the Needs of the Smart Citizen. The Quadruple Helix Approach in a Local, European and Global Perspective

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This paper was written in preparation of the EURICUR (European Institute for Comparative Urban Research) kick-off seminar in Ghent, June 27 2016.

I wrote this paper from the perspective of the city that I was working for at the time and some of the points might be dated after two years and a half, but it still captures the essence of what is intended with the citiesofpeople vision.


As long as ‘cities’ have existed, visions about urbanity have been developed and tested.

Time and again, cities reinvented themselves, based on a long-term vision, a political programme or as a result of current dynamics. Also today, we are launching concepts such as a sustainable city, the eco-city, the digital city, the creative city, the ubiquitous city, the smart city, future cities, slow cities, the caring and sharing city.

Smarter cities are part of the paradigm shift of technology development based on open data, open interfaces and platforms, and open smart city standards. There can be no one size fits all solution: becoming smarter will mean different things to different cities. But we do share a set of common principles and trends in our efforts to become smarter.

Smart citizens are at the heart of the smarter city process. Improving citizens’ quality of life, offering quality jobs, creating a more equal and inclusive society, all while becoming more sustainable, will be at the core of smarter cities. Citizens have an important role to play in developing and implementing smart city strategies and solutions. A successful smart city will reach out to, empower and engage with its citizens to capitalise on their potential as co-creators of urban solutions.[1]

But what does ‘smart’ mean exactly? How are citizens involved in the evolution towards a future-proof city? How can a working quadruple helix model and methodology help to shape the city of the future?

Strategy as the base of customization

Every city, every town is different. Therefore there is no single ‘smart city’, no one-size-fits-all solution. In pursuing this ambition, we must try to answer the question of how the city will look in the future. Every town or city should follow a proper trajectory and will constantly have to reinvent itself.

To formulate this answer, it is important to start from the current social challenges. But we should not forget to cherish sufficient ambition and start looking for solutions to cope with tomorrow’s challenges. The policy and governance cycle (known as ‘beleids- en beheerscyclus’ or BBC to the Flemish municipalities) provides leverage for long-term thinking about the city. The model allows to develop a vision, based on the thorough analysis (‘the state of the city’), on what our city or town should look like in the future.

The first broad path to achieving this future can also be described, since a strategy must be outlined for the coming six years.

“In Ghent, the focus lies on the human component in the city of the future. Smart cities cannot exist without their smart citizens. ”

This model of a smart city reconnects people with their environment and the city, thus creating more efficient and optimal relationships between the available means, technology, communities, services and events in the urban environment. Connecting people also involves that citizens once again become responsible for their environment.

In Ghent, we summarize this as inclusive, innovative and sustainable.

The Ghent Municipality, companies, research institutions and citizens alike are uniting themselves to optimize the opportunities and the challenges of the knowledge and information society.

We consider data to be a strategic asset, as substructure for the processes and decisions in the smart city, in which the citizen is the actor who is the first to define urban life. That is why we use the Ghent dialect ‘wijze stad’ (which literally means ‘wise city’ but with a connotation of fun / cool / happening / lively) as an alternative translation for ‘smart city’.

Data as point of departure

Common and open standards, as well as improving the interoperability of city systems, are crucial. The use of open standards that meet cities’ needs and requirements would: reduce the risk of provider lock-in; help reduce costs; open up the market to more actors, especially local; foster the uptake of internet of things (IoT) solutions; favour the interoperability of solutions; and maximise the release, access and usability of data to accelerate growth opportunities, particularly for SMEs. Citizens’ needs must be the starting point for the standardisation process.[2]

Data are often considered as objective and correct. In ideal circumstances, they are a guarantee for objectivity. Meanwhile, we know that data are not neutral, that they include interpretation, but they continue to give us something to go on as regards the complex urban environment. They are approaching something which resembles a common language which most players in this environment can understand.

Data are generated by governments, companies and citizens alike. Yet, we often continue to use our proper data. A fine example is the Flemish urban monitor that compiles indicators, based on various official data.

These data provide information about the past and allow us to monitor the evolution of the environment to a limited extent.

These data allowing to follow up and adjust the strategy, are mainly ‘slow data’. Quite some potential needs to be achieved, not only as regards the monitoring of the environment, but also with respect to monitoring the impact of the pursued polity, the measurement of the effectiveness and efficiency of the operational procedure of our administration in relation to the outside world, and the monitoring of data which should enable our ‘managers’ and the executive staff to adjust the operational procedures. Meanwhile, quite some techniques have been developed to collect, process and visualize larger data volumes. And we still did not mention the wealth of information that is readily available with our stakeholders or measuring real-time behaviour and their conversion into indicators.

The key question is how we can make these data useful and how we can distill information. An interesting aspect is when several players are combining these data flows, for their proper purposes. This provides a potential of open data, linked data and big data.

It yields various information flows and allows us to conduct analyses, thus generating knowledge. Owing to this knowledge, we can better understand the context in which we are operating. And finally, this understanding leads to wisdom….even in the Ghent meaning of the word.

Data is the backbone of smarter cities:

a.    Open data, big data and the processes they go through will be the central element of smart city development. This includes collection, quality management, opening, maintenance, security, integrity, use, monetisation of use and updating. 

b.    Distributed networks or topologies are likely to be the next operating model for large cities and metropolitan areas. This includes distributed energy production and smart grids, information networks, local production of goods and services, citizen participation, collaborative budgets, bottom-up and living lab initiatives, polycentric governance and economic development.

c.    A growing need for quality data comes with challenges related to the privacy and protection of personal data. At the same time, citizens must be able to access, use and manage their own data. To do so, they need the appropriate digital skills. Being the level of government closest to the citizens, cities can lead the way in addressing these challenges.[3]

Technology or knowledge?

In the first Smart City concepts, technology was the determining element, not accidentally formulated by the industry. The platforms and systems provided by major players such as SIEMENS, CISCO and IBM are often beyond the financial means of a city with limited budgets. The major companies are mainly focused at metropolises with similar budgets: traffic guidance systems, heating networks, smart meters and smart networks will cope with mobility and energy issues.

It has become obvious that new technology is not a means by itself, but an essential instrument to develop solutions for the future. It provides quite some opportunities for innovation, on condition that it allows to share the information and knowledge outside the technical platform.

“Technology allows to resolve ancient difficulties in our cities in an innovative manner. ”

Meanwhile, we notice that technology is not neutral. The form, the accessibility and the required skills to use this properly, will also determine the impact on citizens.

Combined with the unpredictability of how citizens are using this technology for their proper purposes, the Smart Citizens concept was extended by the smart citizen, and issues as regards management, policy and participation in a smart city are coming to the surface.

In Ghent, we intend to insure that small players also have access to the technology and the networks. Even using inexpensive technology can produce smart results when addressing the offline networks and also make the data available to others.

Technologies are key enablers of smarter cities. Technology is a means rather than an end. Becoming smarter is about using a combination of the most advanced engineering technologies and simpler, low-tech solutions. From wifi lampposts to bike lanes and vertical farming, cities will continue to revolutionise their energy and transport systems, all while stimulating innovation and growth locally.[4]

Cooperation is smart

It is time to rethink governance. Public administrations, citizens, businesses and research institutes are part of the same urban ecosystem. Cooperation, co-creation and partnership are the key elements for transparent governance at local level. The quadruple helix model, which brings together citizens, knowledge institutes, businesses and local government, can provide a guiding governance structure for the smart city, putting all partners on an equal footing.[5]

We often underestimate the collective wisdom that is present in our cities. Next to the municipality, also Public Social Welfare Centres, autonomous municipal services, municipal npo’s, intermunicipal utility companies, police zones and relief zones about various aspects of the urban policy. Moreover, there are also the centerfield organizations, companies, schools, universities and university colleges, research institutions, utility companies and corporate federation that constitute the city. The citizen has also changed. Every single one of these stakeholders has its opinion and its expertise. A municipality does therefore not always have the final say about all aspects of urban life.

These local actors are doomed to cooperate. We often observe a complex tangle of management and cooperation agreements, which do not constitute a coherent and intrinsic entity, and certainly not point to a similar direction. Initiatives must remain possible, without being crushed under the burden of do’s and don’ts of our bureaucracy. As an authority, we must give room to citizen’s initiatives that constitute a step towards the city of the future.

But it is certainly not sanctifying if you do not connect these joint ventures and co-creation opportunities with the broad strategy and vision about the future. It is effectively owing to the fragmented competences and radical specialism that challenges are perceived differently. Finding a common focus is exceeding the mere accidental territorial aspect is essential.

That is why Ghent has set up various initiatives according to the quadruple (authorities, companies, academics and citizens) or quintuple helix model (authorities, companies, academics, citizens and [creative] centerfield organizations). Thus, solutions are devised and tested for local social challenges and opportunities. It generates a considerable striking force. It also involves our local administrations to become smarter, and local politicians to be capable of putting aside the primacy of politics. Politicians and civil servants should not only give leeway, but also be prepared to cooperate in such initiatives.

These current local challenges evidently do not stop at the existing administrative city’s boundaries. Quit some of our neighbouring countries have since long understood this. Urban-regional cooperation in France, the Netherlands and Austria are viewed necessary to achieve a future vision about the city.

The six largest cities in Finland have united themselves in one comprehensive smart city strategy, the Six Cities Strategy.  By means of open innovation, open data and open participation, these 6 cities do not only intend to guarantee their international competitiveness and economic growth, but prepare themselves for the future.

Smart projects

The above-mentioned example of the Living Lab is a model of a ‘smart project’. Within the Living Lab, projects are initiated that implement the ambitions and the priorities from the municipal strategy. Such projects are the core of the transition from a classical municipal organization towards a municipality that is ready to face the future.

For instance: if is it the ambition to make a percentage of the building heritage of the municipality more energy-efficient, than this can become the object of a project, in which stakeholders, companies and the academic world are looking for (technologically supported) solutions. The mere purchase of an existing solution will not suffice. The local situation must be carefully mapped and an adjusted trajectory should be outlined. A thorough investigation of good practices and existing smart solutions is obviously essential.

It is crucial that the priorities are sharply formulated, that they are supported by numerical data and that the monitoring is guaranteed. Quite some projects in towns and cities can submit impressive results, but are subsequently not embedded in the regular operations, and even less that the results are used as a seed-bed for other projects or roll-out in other cities.

On the one hand, this has to do with the experimental character of various solutions, with the difficulties that can arise as regards intellectual property rights and opportunities with respect to marketing. On the other hand, owing to the (still existing) compartmentalization of administrations, a general vision about smart solutions on local level fails to materialize.

Finally, our cities are all too often considered as a pilot area or an experimental garden and not as a fully-fledged partner.

A city-led approach. Cities are catching up with other key innovation stakeholders, like industry and academia. Some cities have set up technology departments, innovation units, data analysis offices and recruited innovation experts. They have been proactive about opening up data, creating living labs and innovation hubs, promoting innovation procurement, and establishing triple and quadruple helix cooperation. Cities are increasingly part of the development and deployment of cutting edge technologies. [6]

Smart local policy

Just like corporate models as used by AMAZON, GOOGLE, SPOTIFY and more recently by NETFLIX, BITCOIN, AIRBNB and UBER have a ‘disruptive’ effect on our entire economy, necessitating change, the current social evolution of co-creation and co-production is disruptive for the way in which our policy and our authorities are organized. Politics and administration should reinvent themselves to be permanently capable of shaping the city and the town of the future.

In the storm of innovation and technical developments, local authorities must not be viewed as direct objects. Local authorities have received a mandate to become the hauler in shaping the city in all possible aspects, and thus be the pivot in the wheels of the smart city. By assuming an active role as local authority, we can avoid that large public utilities are announcing new technological solutions, but bear little or no attention to the support of this technology in the city and the opportunities as regards improving the quality of life of the citizens.

Local authorities must see to it that citizens and the centerfield organizations are involved in reflecting about and working on their city of the future.

In other words: co-creation in all of its significances and applications is essential, and it are our municipalities who constitute the gateway to and the motor of co-creation in concert with the stakeholders in the proper society. Local authorities have an equivalent say as regional, national and international authorities, the industry and the academic world.


In order to be prepared as a city in view of future challenges and social evolutions, it is advisable to constantly and consciously reinvent itself.

The continuously developing technologies as regards ICT, mobility, energy-efficiency, human interaction provide enormous opportunities to make our communities smarter. Technology should be considered as the ‘enabler’ and cannot become a goal in itself. It is in function of solutions for social challenges. In a smart city, mankind prevails.

To become a genuine smart city, it is necessary to start from the proper DNA, the knowledge of the city, the society and the stakeholders. A conscious use of data, which are aggregating and analysing data, is essential to acquire this knowledge. In concert with the stakeholders, a vision of the future can be developed and this vision can be pursued in a smart manner.

This vision is expressed in smart projects. Cooperation and co-creation with all parties concerned in the city is a key condition in view of such projects. However, since social challenges do not stop at the city’s boundaries, we should also look for cooperation beyond these borders. Furthermore, smart projects should achieve (jointly defined) municipal priorities.

Such an approach creates new demands and challenges to the local authorities and their administration. In order to enable genuine co-creation, is should assume an active role, without always being able to determine the decisions. Local authorities and administration should act as director or as mediator in order to define the space between small and large players.

[1] EUROCITIES statement on Smarter Cities: city-led, citizen-focused, June 2016

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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