Published on Digital Development

Building smarter cities

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For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Over 90 percent of urban growth is occurring in the developing world, adding an estimated 70 million new residents to urban areas each year. Demand for services in urban areas is therefore increasing exponentially, and the capacity of local governments to manage this demand is challenged.

Moreover, even though private sector has been successful in leveraging technology to improve service delivery and efficiency, governments have failed to fully embrace the benefits that these innovations bring. There is a growing need for governments to be able to deliver more services in a more efficient and effective way with limited resources. Cities need to innovate and create new tools and approaches.

Smart Cities

When we think about Smart Cities, we usually go in one of two directions: on one hand, we may think about a very technology-intensive city, where sensors are everywhere and public services are provided in a very efficient manner, mainly because of the technology they use and decisions being based on information that is gathered in real time by thousands of interconnected devices. All buildings are “intelligent”, with smart meters and energy saving systems, and transport is painless (or at least it is as good as it could ever get). Trash cans have sensors that indicate when they are full, and trash collectors follow a specific route based on this information.

On the other hand, some cities are taking a different stab at “smart.” They go for a better relationship between citizens and governments leveraged by technology. That is, by whatever technology is available at the time. They rely on citizens to help improve service delivery by identifying their needs and creating mechanisms for feedback and reports. Citizens have a more active role in managing their own neighborhoods, and collaborate with their local governments to improve public services. Government releases relevant data that is then taken by civil society to co-create applications aimed at improving the quality of life of citizens. Citizens have an application in their smartphone (or an SMS service) with which they can report a full trash can, and trash collectors can accommodate their routes based on this information.

We believe that both approaches are not mutually exclusive, and that they can be adopted by cities in developing countries to improve the delivery of public services. In essence, we propose the following model:

Smart City Development Framework

The proposed framework is divided in five components:

1. Smart government road map. The starting point is a forward looking diagnosis that not only includes understanding the existing infrastructure, but also setting a path towards a smart city model for the next five to ten years. Based on this forward looking exercise, an action plan and investments road map are proposed, tailored to the specific context of each city.

2. Identification of city priorities. In parallel, interactive sessions with main stakeholders are organized. Civil Society organizations, local universities, software developer communities, public officials, and sector specialists are gathered to discuss their main needs and priorities, focusing on those that could be solved through technology. Practices from other countries and cities are shared, and problem statements are further defined.

3. Co-creating solutions. Based on the problem statements identified before, cities have several alternatives. They could, for example, develop specific applications directly. They could also participate in events such as hackathons and app challenges to crowdsource solutions, spurring innovation and entrepreneurship. Partnerships with academia and private sector may also result in multidisciplinary teams co-creating solutions with innovative approaches. The idea of these activities is to create prototypes and concepts that are then tested in the field (in this case, in the city) and start a virtuous cycle of feedback from citizens and adaptation/responses from government, all aimed at creating a new or improved service.

4. Urban Innovation Lab. To keep the traction and momentum generated by this co-creation process, a space that facilitates the ongoing interaction between all stakeholders mentioned above is needed; a space where new ideas and solutions can be tested in a fail-safe environment. This Urban Innovation Lab should lead future iterations of the proposed process and support stakeholders in coming up with problems and solutions aimed at improving the quality of life in their city.

5. Networked cities. Finally, cities going through this process could create a network to share applications and practices. This way, they can maximize the value of the solutions they develop by sharing them with their peers, as well as learn from other experiences and build on top of them. Such networks could also link to already existing networks in Europe (for example, the European Network of Living Labs or the Open Cities initiative) and the US.

We believe that this approach will appeal to cities in developing countries that do not have the infrastructure or the budget to become a technology- incentive city in the short term. They can create a medium-to-long term investment plan that will eventually get them to this level of technology. In the meantime, they can start leveraging existing technologies (in most cases, mobile devices, smartphones, and broadband access) to co-create smart civic applications that will help improve public service delivery and overall quality of life in their cities from the start.

Thus, our idea of a smart city is one where all stakeholders build what the European Network of Living Labs calls “Public-Private-People-Partnerships,” an ecosystem where government services and investments are continuously improving through feedback from citizens, and academia and private sector create opportunities for new businesses and research that will eventually increase the quality of life. At different scales, we believe this approach could be adopted by any city, despite its size or income level. Emphasis should not only be placed on the actual solutions that may come out of the first iteration, but on the sustainability of the approach.

For more information on this, please contact any of us:

Victor Mulas (

Eva Clemente (

Arturo Muente-Kunigami (

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