The Smart City – beyond city marketing

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This is a translation into English of an article the I wrote in Dutch a while back. It was originally written for Impuls, the journal of the Flemish Expertise Centre for Municipal Managers. It was published in the September 2015 edition of the journal and intended to be an introductory text to this ‘new’ phenomenon of smart cities for the Flemish municipal managers.

Since then, many Flemish municipalities adopted a smart city approach. Many started one or several projects in verticals like retail, city centre promotion, energy or mobility. Others opened parts of their city to experiments with technologies, bringing large corporates on board or work with local startups.

The Flemish government approved a Smart Flanders project which allows research centre imec to work with local authorities to valorise their available (real time) data and develop and try out new applications based on that data. 

Unfortunately, not many cities and municipalities in Flanders developed an overarching and future oriented vision and strategy towards smart cities.
At the start of the term of the new local councils in January of this year there are deputy mayors in cities and municipalities that explictly have smart cities in their title. 
But it remains to be seen what their view on smart will be, sectoral or integra-ted? ICT oriented or people-future oriented?

I hope that after the next elections the Flemish government stimulates municipalities to work on an integrated long term vision for their future taking into account the elements of the citiesofpeople vision. And not only focusing on data, tech or the elements of the cold smart city. The new Flemish urban policy needs to focus on supporting a people centric city of the future, also by including a programme of cooperation between the cities and municipalities.

In recent years, the notion ‘smart city’ is on everybody’s lips. Quite some cities all over the world are using this concept in the scope of their city marketing. Instinctively, this smart city is always linked to an ultramodern city which is systematically using ICT as well as innovative digital applications in fields such as mobility, energy efficiency, interaction between citizens or service provision by local authorities. Meanwhile, however, everyone agrees that the smart city is more than a digital city. This article provides more feedback about the concept of ‘smart city’, the evolution of the concept during the past decade and its (possible) application in our Flemish municipalities.

The city

It may sound as a cliché, but in fact it is a reality in the future: over 75 % of the world population will be living in cities by 2050. In 1950, approximately 1 billion people were living in urbanized areas on our planet; by 2050, this number will have increased to 6 billion inhabitants. Recent UN projections (, forecast that 85 % of the world population or 9 billion people will be living in cities by the end of this century. If we examine the data for Belgium, already 98 % of our inhabitants are considered as townspeople. Thus, we are ranking among the top 10 of the most urbanized areas in the world.

The future is therefore lying in the cities and requires a different approach of urban life, not merely restricted to solely responding on problems that are proper to the physical and demographic growth of the city.

Thinking of cities and urban life is of all times. New theories are increasingly surfacing, mostly inspired by an academic, an international organization, an international institution or an individual consultant. Think for instance of the sustainable city, the ecological city, the digital city, the creative city, the ubiquitous city and more recently, the future cities, slow cities, the caring and the sharing city.

As long as cities exist, various visions about urban life have been developed and tested. During one period in history, the city could function as an attraction pole, while in a subsequent period, it could ensue in decline and city migration. Time and again, cities reinvented themselves, either based on a broadly carried long-term vision, a politically inspired short-term vision or on current dynamics.

But what is a smart city exactly?

In my research of the ultimate definition of the ‘smart city’, scientific literature mentioned no less than 28 different attempts. It soon appeared that it is impossible to find one single encompassing definition. Furthermore, there are dozens of conceptual variations, in which the adjective ‘smart’ is for instance replaced by ‘intelligent’, ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’.

If we start from the aspect ‘digitalization’ as a new element in the worldwide urban thinking, we can observe a clear evolution, which already goes beyond the smart city:

1.    the digital city (2002): focused on the development of ICT infrastructure (broadband) to meet the needs of citizens, enterprises and authorities in the field of connectivity.

2.    the ‘ubiquitous city’ (2006): the ICT-infrastructure in the city is further developed so as to enable permanent connectivity. Citizens get access to services at any moment, from any place and with each device.

3.    the intelligent city (2009): uses information technology to change the way of life and way of work. The intelligence refers to the conscious pursuance of innovation and technological development.

4.    the ‘smart city’ (2011): adds the human factor to the intelligent city. Interaction between people determines the smart character of designing the city via new technology. Stimulate creativity is essential in the smart city.

5.    The knowledge city (2014): adds the smart city to the permanent gathering and use of knowledge. Data becomes a strategic asset, and both sensors, other monitoring systems as well as people are accumulating data, in view of analyzing and aggregation of data to acquire an improved knowledge of the environment and take the proper decisions on all levels.

The early stages of thinking about the smart city were highly technologically oriented. According to IBM, CISCO and numerous other major commercial players, this is a city in which new technologies are resolving all problems as regards infrastructure, instruments, interconnectivity and intelligence in the city. Of course, these companies immediately provide readily available technological self-help kits for cities. Examples of such cities are mainly found in the so-called ‘smart cities in a box’ in South-Korea and China, but also in Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates is considered as the show case par excellence of a smart and sustainable city. SIEMENS even developed a City Cockpit in Singapore, allowing the mayor to take decisions based on a daily review of information provided by sensors and cameras that are placed in all parts of the city.

The European Commission initially adopted the notion of smart city in the scope of the European innovation policy. Consortia of enterprises, research institutions and authorities are encouraged to develop and pilot high-tech smart city solutions in an urban context. The industry had to take the lead, cities were mostly viewed as the setting, the experimental garden to test solutions in view of their commercialization.

The 28 definitions of the ‘smart city’ which I have found, also contain efforts of concrete examples. Quite some authors are seeking refuge in delineating dimensions, to describe in which fields a smart city should be active and deploy technology to become future-fit.

Summarizing, we can say that, according to literature, the characteristics of a smart city are situated in the following domains:

–      A networked infrastructure which enables political efficiency and both social as cultural development

–      Social inclusion of various groups of inhabitants and of social capital in the urban development

–      Economic urban development and enhance creativity as well as entrepreneurial spirit in view of urban growth

–      The natural environment as a strategic component for the future

–      Technology, and in a more narrow view, ICT, may not become an objective in itself, but is an ‘enabler’, a means to facilitate the ultimate goal.

Criticism on ‘smart’

A first criticism on these developments was mainly that they provoked ‘empty’ spaces which did not take into account how cities are operation in reality, the complexity of the urban tissue, unexpected scenarios and the mixed use of urban areas. In other words, people did not reckon with the unpredictable character of the human element and actually not even with mankind. The objective of this smart city was technology in itself.

A second criticism on the first smart city solutions was that the city itself, and first and foremost the municipality, was by no means considered as an actor in pursuing a smart city. The city was merely viewed as ‘customer’, that could purchase the new technology, or as a ‘canvass’ on which the technologies were tested.

In response to criticism, the European cities network EUROCITIES, including Helsinki, Amsterdam, Manchester, Bologna, Barcelona, Ghent and Eindhoven are striving towards a broader and holistic smart city notion. The definition which we are using is mainly adding a human component: ‘A city can be described as a smart city when investments in human and social capital and in traditional and more innovative communication are supporting a sustainable development. We are processing a sustainable use of natural resources and pursuing a participating local policy. A smart city should be a perfect venue to live, including an optimum quality of life and an efficient use of means.[1]

A smart city again links people with their environment and city to create a more efficient and optimal relations between the available means, technology, communities, services and events in the urban environment. Renewing the links between people entails in citizens again becoming jointly responsible for their environment.

Smart Cities cannot exist without their smart citizens. In order to be inclusive, innovative and sustainable, and in other words to be ready to deal with all challenges and opportunities which the future keeps in store for the cities, it is essential for the municipalities, companies, research institutions as well as all citizens to unite themselves to achieve an urban ecosystem that is ready for this future. The opportunities and challenges provided by our knowledge and information society should be used to a maximum extent.

The local authorities cannot be viewed as the direct object, which have to allow that all kinds of technologies and techniques are tested in their city or municipality, but they are themselves actors in designing their local community and have an equivalent say as the industry and the academic world. To boot, the local authorities should see to it that citizens and the midfield can be involved in thinking about and working on their city of the future. In other words: co-creation in all meanings and applications is absolutely essential.

To put it in a witticism: people generally do not look further than their proper backyard.

But we can progressively abandon this proposition in the contemporary social culture in Flanders. We are observing an evolution from NIMBY (not in my back yard!) towards YIMBY (yes in my back yard!). An increasing number of initiatives set up by inhabitants also have an impact on the backyards of their neighbours. The midfield once again is finding its way to the district, the village, the precincts. New technology allows more people to get involved and wanting to get involved in the organization of their small community. Finally, also during the organization of their community, city and even region.

In the preceding paragraphs, you can easily replace the word ‘city’ or ‘town’ by ‘municipality’ or ‘community’. The pursuance towards a place about which everyone agrees that it is pleasant to live, to reside and to work is not an exclusivity for the city. Although urbanization is a fact, the local community still will hold a central position.

Just like company models as used by Amazon, Google, Spotify, and more recently by Netflix, Bitcoin, AirBNB, Uber, have a ‘disruptive’ effect on our entire economy, rendering change necessary, the current social evolution of co-creation and co-production are disruptive for the way in which our politics and our authorities are organized.

It is also a question of ‘smartness’ that our politics and our administrations should reinvent themselves to be permanently ready for designing the city and the municipality of the future.

The Flemish smart city or town

The preceding paragraphs have proven that the ideal Smart City does not exist, but its pursuance is a contemporary attempt to find an answer to the question as regards how the city of the future will look like in every aspect. Basing our assumptions on today’s social challenges to find this answer is important, but we should bear in mind to cherish sufficient ambition and look for solutions for tomorrow’s challenges. Re-using and sharing, open services, open data, open government, semantic web, big data, crowdsourcing, crowd funding and co-creation. These are all terms which are going to be increasingly used in coming years and all involve technology in view of social challenges. But are all municipalities expected to their efforts simultaneously on every single aspect?

Recently, Brussels Capital Region launched a Brussels Smart City strategy. The website informs you that the focus for Brussels is situated on 5 domains: smart and safe, smart services, smart and mobile, smart and social and smart infrastructure. They are not selected at random, or chosen between an already existing set, but well-considered domains that are a priority for Brussels Capital Region, based on the majority agreement of the Brussels government. Other Flemish cities, such as Mechelen and Ghent, also take their selected priorities for the future so as to integrate their smart city strategy.

It may sound strange, but the policy and management cycle (Beheers- en Beleids Cyclus – BBC) imposed by Flanders, which is branded by many as a bureaucratic system, may provide a wide long-term range of opportunities and leverages about the city or the municipality. At least, if we take abstraction from the utterly detailed financial stipulations of the BBC-decision and only consider the intention of the policy and management cycle. We will all be compelled to look beyond tomorrow, to think further than the mere deployment of means and achieving a financial equilibrium, and even beyond the immediate results of the policy. The BBC allows to develop a vision on the ‘State of Affairs’ based on a thorough vision as regards the future of our city or municipality. This also includes the main path towards achieving this future, because it also involves a strategy for the coming six years.

Every city, every town, is different. First and foremost, every town and community is boasting its proper identity, a proper history and proper customs. Striving towards the ideal and unique smart city is therefore impossible. Every town should follow its proper track so as to formulate long-term objectives. Every town will have to reinvent itself. There is no final point. The BBC compels all Flemish towns to think and plan ahead. Strategic thinking and strategic management are the main concern in the philosophy of the BBC. Strategic management involves that we depart from the priorities for our town – which differ for every town – and based on these priorities, we will pursue a policy and harmonize our actions. It is important that we possess the required flexibility to anticipate quickly on new circumstances and new social evolutions.

The local priorities will be relatively close to the dimensions of the smart city as they have been previously formulated in this article, since we have to cope with similar challenges anywhere in the world. But the status of the challenges and the possible solutions will differ in every ‘spot’. Thus, anywhere in the world, our infrastructure for mobility will be dealt with, but the state of affairs and the scale of the problem, for instance in the Indian city of Chennai will be entirely different than the city of Roeselare and will entail in another approach. Yet, the Indian government recently decided to create 100 smart cities in India, focused on the high tech districts boasting high tech and hyperconnected buildings, which will probably not be accessible to everyone (

Today’s local challenges evidently do not stop at the current administrative city borders. Quite some of our surrounding countries have already come to this conclusion. Regional cooperation between cities in France, the Netherlands and Austria are deemed necessary to meet the future vision about the city. In Finland, the 6 largest cities have even combined their forces in one single comprehensive city strategy, the Six Cities Strategy ( By means of open innovation, open data and open participation, these 6 cities do not only want to guarantee their international competitiveness and economic growth, but also intend to jointly prepare for the future.

The townspeople have also changed. Even today, we still underestimate the collective wisdom available in our cities. Everyone is creative, everyone has an opinion and feels the need to share this opinion. What’s more, it should also be possible to take initiatives, without being overwhelmed by the weight of the do’s and don’ts of our bureaucracy. As an authority, we should give room to these citizen’s initiatives that are a step in the future of our city. This also implies that our local administration should be ‘smart’, and that our local politicians should at times be capable of putting aside the absolute primacy of politics. There are instruments to this effect in the bureaucratic BBC regulations.

It is also important to know ourselves properly. Today, we dispose of plentiful data about all possible aspects of the city. All Flemish local authorities are compelled to initiate their BBC track by drafting an environment analysis. In principle, this analysis should provide an image of the ‘state of the city’ or the ‘state of the town’. We all have accumulated a wide range of indicators and assembled data to feed these indicators. But this environment analysis is only a starting point. That is why we know the present, and we are capable of monitoring the evolution of the environment in a limited way. There is quite some potential in retrieving data, not only as regards the monitoring of the environment, but also with respect to monitoring the impact of the pursued policy, measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of our administrations in view of the outside world, and data monitoring should enable our ‘managers’ and executives to adapt its operation. We have not even mentioned the wealth of data available from the stakeholders in our towns and cities and the opportunities we have at our disposal to combine their data with government data. We also need to keep in mind the potential of open data and big data, and not only from an economic perspective.

Data is only somewhat useful when it is efficiently used, when we distill information. This information allows us to accomplish analyses, thus generating knowledge. Owing to this knowledge, we succeed in better understanding the context in which we operate.

Finally, this understanding entails in wisdom….


–      Every single Flemish city disposes of all means to develop a coordinating strategy and vision of the future, thus enabling them to become ‘smart’ cities

–      Based on its proper DNA, every town should determine the priorities by using the readily available technological means. This also includes transition thinking.

–      Cooperation is essential, not only with the proper citizens, (not only by means of classic participation, but in genuine co-creation), not only with the academic world, the business world and the midfield, but also with the wider region

–      Knowledge is not only power, measuring is not only knowing, but data in all forms and for all kinds of applications is essential to acquire knowledge about ourselves and a further evolution in view of more wisdom.

And we now proudly present… the solutions

Now that we have identified the forest, it is time to have a look at the various tree species. In other words, assuming that we are pursuing a city that is prepared for coping the challenges of the future, who can help us in this endeavour and what are the best practices?

Let us first make a distinction between smart city strategy, smart city solutions and smart city projects.

1.    Smart city strategy

As mentioned earlier, the strategy of every city will be different, owing to the local priorities and challenges. Focusing these priorities is a task of the local authority, in close cooperation with the local stakeholders, based on a collectively accepted vision about the future, but also by examining the priorities of the surrounding cities and communities, of the region, of Europe and even on a worldwide scale.

Vienna provides a good example of an integrated and transversal smart city approach ( Most of the hundreds of other examples of smart cities are focusing on one or more domains (mobility and/or energy efficiency and/or ICT and/or open data and/or social innovation, …), and are using it intensely in their city marketing and profile, whereas Vienna is internationally recognized as a city that has developed a comprehensive strategy of the future based on a holistic perspective, that it is currently pursuing.

2.    Smart city solutions

Based on the previously mentioned dimensions of the ‘smart city’, the business world and the academic world have developed a significant series of solutions in the past years. These solutions are often quite generic, taking no consideration of the specific local situation.

The platforms and the systems that major players such as SIEMENS, CISCO and IBM are providing can be catalogued among the smart solutions, although their solutions are not feasible for a city with limited financial means. The large companies are therefore concentrating on large cities with considerable budgets.

Moreover, since the EU innovation policy is focused on smart cities, and especially owing to the onset of the European Innovation Partnership, innumerable smaller companies, SME’s and start-ups have entered the market, providing generic smart city solutions specifically developed for towns and cities. You can find a survey on European scale on the website Examples include already classic apps using sensors in parking areas in order to steer the parking behaviour, some applications opening up all municipal services via a city app, and systems using smart meters to optimize the energy use.

For the majority of us, this will not be surprising. Quite some of our cities are currently experimenting with these kind of applications. Thus, last year, the city of Courtrai was bestowed the Agoria and Belfius Smart City Awards with the Shop & Go project, allowing parking attendants to monitor the parking duration via sensors underneath the parking spaces. Various municipalities meanwhile boast an app, offering a series of municipal services, such as the ‘Stadsapp’ of Beveren or Geel. When looking at the nominees of the Agoria e-gov awards of previous years or examine the nominees of the Belfius Smart City Awards of 2015, you will find a wide range of smart city solutions that have been developed or applied within one or several municipalities.

Based on these examples, you can conclude that quite some companies in Flanders have discovered the local market. On the one hand, this implies that the European and Flemish innovation policy focused on the local context is accomplishing results, but on the other hand we are far from reaching the ultimate goals.

All too often, solutions remain in an experimental stadium. In recent years, Flemish research institutes such as VIM – Vlaams Instituut voor de Mobiliteit (Flemish Institute for Mobility), with projects around sustainable mobility such as Dynacity, VITO – Vlaams Instituut voor Technologisch Onderzoek (Flemish Institute for Technological Research) with the Flemish Smart Energy City network and iMinds with a wide range of projects, ICT incubators and applied research in the field of smart city solutions in ICT, media and communicatie have not only focused on stimulating the entrepreneurial spirit in Flanders, but are also trying to involve the municipalities. However, this will not suffice. Quite some projects in towns and cities can present impressive results, but are subsequently not anchored in the regular operation, let alone that the results are used in other cities.

On the one hand, this has to do with the experimental character of a number of solutions, with difficulties that can arise as regards intellectual rights of ownership and possible marketing, but on the other hand (still) owing to the compartmentalization of the Flemish administrations, preventing a Flemish vision on smart solutions on a local level to occur. Finally, our cities are all too often viewed as testing ground, test bed, experimental garden, and not as a fully-fledged partner.

A final problem as regards smart solutions is their diversity. Do we not all dream about smart lighting in our towns and cities? Street lights that – put it simply – are activated by a network of sensors, causing the lights to function when movement is detected in the neighbourhood? This would yield quite some advantages, not only as regards to energy efficiency, but also with respect to safety and coziness in general. Today’s technology is mature enough and we can find countless successful examples of implementations in Europe. The problem, however, is that there currently are approximately 80 different ways of implementing ‘smart (street)lighting’. There is no single standard, thus forcing the companies responsible of public lighting to wait and see in order to find out which standards and techniques will ultimately prevail.

A same line of reasoning can also be applied as regards data norms and standards.

The OSLO project (, facilitated by V-ICT-OR and iMinds, is designed to create a general data standard for local authorities. You may wonder whether this is all high-tech? Not in the least, norms and standards are essential for our future, because they are the key to exceed the experimental phase.

3.    Smart projects

Smart projects are the core of the transition from a classic municipal organization towards a smart city that is ready for the future. We can distinguish two types of smart projects:

1)   Projects that are implementing the ambitions and priorities from the smart strategy of the municipality.

When we are looking at the state of our municipality at the start of a term of office, listening to the stakeholders and define the final priorities based on the policy options of the political majority within the municipality, the choice can be made to identify a series of smart projects in view of implementing these priorities.

It is for instance the ambition to make a percentage of the patrimony of buildings belonging to the municipality more energy efficient, than this will be the object of a smart project, in which the stakeholders, the companies as well as the academic world are looking for (technologically underpinned) solutions. It will not suffice to merely purchase an existing solution. The local situation needs to be taken into account and an appropriate track needs to be covered. Evidently, a thorough research as regards best practices and existing smart solutions is essential.

It is important to carefully define the priorities, in order to be supported by data and guaranteeing the follow-up. The local bearing surface is also vital, with target groups who have a vested interest, but also boasting a strong and official clear-cut coordination and leadership. Finally, we must not forget to define a limited number of smart projects.

2)   projects that are rather deemed as experimental.

Not every municipality has the bearing power to conduct experiments (and thus risking failure). Often, this kind of projects come into being because a (local) company comes along with a particular idea, for which it is looking for a municipality that can be used as a test case. The choice of these kinds of projects, that are generally not mentioned in the predetermined local priorities, therefore entails considerable risks. It may be a very good idea, that turns out to be successful in a later stage, but it may also entail in a grave failure.

A solution to limit the risks is starting up a local living lab, specifically aimed at conducting experiments about a series of themes. Examples of such living labs in Flanders are ‘Stadslab 2050’ in Antwerp (, Ghent Living Lab ( and Licalab in Turnhout (

It is also worth considering an affiliation to other thematic living labs, such as iLab.O or iMinds.


It is preferable for towns or cities wanting to be ready for future challenges and social evolution, to constantly and consciously reinvent themselves. The continuously developing technologies in the field of ICT, mobility, energy efficiency, human interaction, are providing huge opportunities to make our communities smarter.

To become a genuine smart city, it is necessary to start from the proper DNA, the knowledge about the city, the community and the stakeholders. Conscious data processing, aggregating and analyzing data is essential to acquire this knowledge. In cooperation with the stakeholders, we can develop a vision for the future and subsequently pursue this vision in a smart manner. Technology is the ‘enabler’ and cannot become a goal in itself. Mankind prevails in a smart city.

Not every city needs the ambition to develop an encompassing ‘smart’ strategy. Smart projects already boast an enormous surplus value, provided that these projects implement a priority of the city and on condition that it is implemented with all interested parties in the city.

[1] Caragliu, A, Del Bo, C. & Nijkamp, P (2009). “Smart cities in Europe”. Serie Research Memoranda 0048 (VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Economics, Business Administration and Econometrics)

3 Replies to “The Smart City – beyond city marketing”

  1. Historically, urban planning professionals have designed ideal city models with new services. These new services save time because they are usually tailor-made.

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