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Blog - What is a Smart City? And Why Don’t Our Cities Feel Smart?

The demand for living in cities is already high, but it seems that this is only set to increase. The United Nations’ World Cities Report predicts that by 2050 over 70% of the world’s population will be living and working in cities — one of many reports predicting that cities will play an important role in our future.

In this post, I will explore common preconceptions and views of what a smart city is, consider why they might be smarter for some people than others, and discuss our role as citizens within the smart city¹. This post is the first in a series of blogs on the topic of smart cities, so look out for more to follow soon.

The definition of what a smart city is is widely debated, but for the purpose of this blog, I will use the definition below from a 2017 white paper produced by Juniper Research:

“A smart city is characterised by the integration of technology into a strategic approach to sustainability, citizen well-being and economic development.”

— Scoring methodology, Juniper Research, 2017

A city often earns its status as ‘smart’ when specific processes, such as information and communication management, become interconnected and use advanced technologies, such as IoT (Internet of Things: physical devices that are connected with each other and the internet) to improve their operations and services. These services are often based on intelligent automation and behind-the-scenes technologies to manage public services, such as energy, water supply and waste collection.

How Do We Measure If a City Is Smart? The topic of how to identify or measure how smart a city is is widely debated, with many organisations providing a definitive list of ‘smart’ criteria or metrics for cities. Here are some examples CITYkeysEuropean Smart Cities and Lendlease.

In the Juniper Research’s white paper, they established a unique scoring system to analyse and rate the ‘smartness’ of UK cities. Their latest research determined that London had the most advanced smart city strategy in the UK². The team measured each city’s activity by looking at the following data points:

  • Transport: How connected and efficient are the services? Is the city gathering data from real-time traffic monitoring and using this data to inform signal and traffic flow adjustments, based on emergency response requirements?
  • Healthcare: How innovative and impactful is the service provider’s approach? Does the city have clean air regulations and healthy transport solutions?
  • Public Safety: How technology-orientated and impactful is the city’s approach to public safety? Has smart street lighting been deployed? Is intelligent video surveillance analytics or predictive crime and fire risk software being used?
  • Productivity: How collaborative and co-creative is the city’s smart strategy? Are they hosting conferences and hackathons to bring different city stakeholders together? Does the city encourage sponsorship of ‘exceptional talent’ visas for foreign talent to contribute to the economy?
  • Energy Sectors: How advanced is the urban service sector? Is the city applying technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) controlled smart traffic light systems, home energy storage solutions, solar panels and infrastructure for EV charging?

Which UK Cities Are Considered Smart?From the above assessment that a city is smart based on whether large service providers implement advanced technologies to optimise their processes, costs and service offerings, Juniper Research argues that multiple UK cities are smart. London, Edinburgh and Bristol are considered three of the UK’s top smart cities and, looking at a global scale, UK companies are world leaders in smart city products and services — such as urban design, data analytics and planning³.

However, if we think about the public services that we use in the UK on a daily basis — such as healthcare, transport and education — would you say that these services feel particularly smart or intuitive? Our rubbish gets picked up, our water runs and our heating works, but considering the criteria above, do these services feel efficient, connected and innovative? Or do they feel slow, impersonal and outdated? Are we simply taking these services for granted? Or do we, as citizens, just have different criteria for measuring smartness?

Why Don’t Our Cities Feel Smart?

1. Is innovation always visible?Innovation can take many different forms. We often hear about the exciting, flashy technologies that fill the headlines, but less exciting, yet equally impactful, are innovations like a novel way of organising a team or a new management system.

2. Are our expectations of what a smart city is too high? Every day, we hear of another new technology that will drastically improve our lives — from virtual and mixed reality to face-recognition technology and robotic services. These technologies may be becoming more commonplace in the private sector, but do we have unrealistic expectations of how quickly these technologies can be integrated into our public services and infrastructure?

We may have observed some improvements in our utilities and waste collection services. For example, more innovative communication channels, such as email, phone applications and chatbots. However, we may take these advances in technology for granted in the public sector, because we see the speed at which new technologies have been applied in the private sector.

3. Do the measurements of a smart city consider the citizen experience? Citizens have different priorities to city authorities and the smart city agenda — they care about living their lives — about their families, their careers and their wellbeing. Maybe all they expect is for the services that they pay for (through taxes) to meet their needs and seamlessly work alongside their busy lives. Perhaps these services could…

  • Incorporate AI into their phones to provide guidance if they get lost on a journey or experience delays during their commutes?
  • Use VR (virtual reality or mixed reality) to add an experiential value to the city transport system?
  • Identify a suitable doctor or nurse to provide them with a consultation, without long waiting times or various referrals?
  • Interconnect services, so that they don’t need to repeatedly provide the same information to different providers (i.e., one system rather than a disconnected system)?
  • Provide accessible and intuitive digital interfaces and devices for people of all ages to manage their utilities and gain insight into their energy use?

How Could Our Cities Feel Smart For Citizens?
Cities exist to meet the needs of people — whether they provide, work, education, a health system or culture. People’s needs should be at the center of our public and private services. Despite a growing trend towards user-centred design, corporations still tend to dictate the city agenda. How can we refocus the their approach to ensure that citizen needs underpin the design and execution of city services?

What if city authorities and businesses used a bottom-up approach to innovation — ensuring that ideas, processes and technologies are based on input from citizens? This might not only result in smarter services, but may also produce a better user experience for the citizens, who would feel more empowered in how cities are defined — rather than the large service providers who currently dominate the market. A step towards this is a long-term implementation strategy that educates the people who execute these services and are in direct contact with the user. By incorporating their opinion and experience, could we offer a more human-centred approach, refined and grounded on research?

Could a Solution Be Found in Service Design? What could ‘smart cities’ do to implement and improve their service experience? What if the following principles underpinned our cities?

  1. User-Centered: The citizen should be central to every service.
  2. Co-Creative: Citizen, public and private sectors should be involved in the process.
  3. Sequencing: Services should be visualised by sequences, or key moments in a customer’s journey, it’s important to understand what and when things happen. Before, during and after the service.
  4. Evidencing: Everyone who is involved in providing the service, needs to be aware of the service experience.
  5. Holistic: The design of a service should take into account the entire service experience. Context matters.

In the UK, the Government (Gov.uk) has already successfully implemented a service design framework, which follows a human-centred design approach. This is demonstrated by the Government Digital Services (GDS) who is leading the transformation of the UK’s government services from physical into digital. GDS has their own set of design principles, but overall their process and service strategy reflects the aforementioned 5 principles by Marc Stickdorn. It is generally agreed within the design industry that you should ‘always start with the user’.

One solution is that aspiring smart cities consider their own set of principles. This would enable public sector service providers to introduce a user-centred approach, but would also offer a set of principles for private companies to follow. One issue to consider is how we could apply this approach to all city services?

Could a Standard Approach to User-Centred Design Help Cities Feel Smarter for Citizens?

Even though the government is a great example for the public and private sector, the majority of city services are not solely public and therefore, there are no standards for ensuring quality across urban services. This seems especially important for large smart cities like London or New York, who struggle to compete with smaller smart cities, such as Copenhagen or Amsterdam, as the bigger population size interferes with services and the experiences that a smart city offers.

Services such as energy, education and transport are partly substituted by private organisations and often don’t put the user first or think about a holistic service experience before creating their services. Private and public organisations have a different agenda; the question is how can these become more aligned?

In upcoming blogs, I will explore what the public and private sector can learn from service design and from one another, and how this approach could produce more aligned terminology and services that meet the needs and expectations of city authorities, businesses and citizens.

What Do You Think? Are any of these thoughts on smart cities useful or interesting for you? If you have an idea you’d like to share, please do! I would like to incorporate comments and conversations from this post for future blogs. Next time, I will explore different views on smart cities through a short collection of interviews; looking at the public, the private and political side of smart cities and how they often fail to align with each other.

Katinka Schaaf is a Junior Service Designer at Future Cities Catapult. You can follow her on Twitter @KatinkaSchaaf . This blog originally appeared via Medium


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