Smart Cities for Dummies


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I grimace when I see those ads to ‘Build a Smarter Planet’. It seems to me the planet was working pretty well before we started messing with it. But ‘Build a Smarter City’ – now that’s something I can get behind. Cities are humanity’s grandest creation. They reflect us, sometimes smart, sometimes not. Cities reflect our civilizations, and when working well cities are the most efficient way to help the poor, the fortunate and unfortunate, and the environment. And without a doubt every city in the world would benefit from smarter design and smarter management.

Coffee House, New Delhi, IndiaThere’s a bit of smoke and mirrors on some of today’s smart city claims. Selling more IT and sophisticated algorithms might help a few of the very fortunate cities. Building a smart-city suburb next to a very unsustainable city can yield important lessons but can also be a useful distraction. Being really smart about cities is improving basic service delivery to the 1 billion urban-poor now going without clean water, or the 2 billion without sanitation. And we need big-time smarts as we build cities over the next twenty years for an additional 2 billion residents – this time locking in energy savings and a high quality of life for all.

At its core a smart city is a welcoming, inclusive city, an open city. By being forthright with citizens, with clear accountability, integrity, and fair and honest measures of progress, cities get smarter. A smart city listens – and tries to give voice to everyone, and a smart city talks to other cities and is always learning. This is not a function of wealth. ‘Poor’ cities can be as smart as any city; however poor cities doing lots of smart things rarely stay poor.

A smart city has to be underpinned with good basic service provision. Reliable basic service provision for all is the base of the hierarchy of smart cities.

An important aspect of smart – or technologically advanced – cities is that as much as we shape technology, technology shapes us as well. Wired cities, cool municipal apps, open data platforms, and social media are changing us and the way we live in cities, and as this develops further there will be unintended consequences: good and bad.

Many books are written on smart cities, often highlighting high-tech ideas: like variable pricing for road tolls; efficient street lighting and building sensors; automated revenue collection and ‘e-governance’. But many of these actions are expensive and usually available only to cities in high income countries. There are just as many smart ideas for cities with less money. For example, people using SMS on their cell phones to pay fees; doubling up schools as community centers; establishing neighborhood support committees; providing mentors to troubled teenagers.

So what are some of the smart things cities can do to? Here’s my list of top ten action items: (i) ensure good communication between government and citizens; (ii) as much as possible pursue an ‘open information’ approach; (iii) ensure basic service provision for all – before spending on ‘big ticket’ items; (iv) look at health, education and basic service provision in an integrated way (they are all only as strong as the weakest member); (v) provide an environment where local businesses are welcome and can thrive, help provide employment; (vi) cooperate with neighboring cities and ‘higher’ levels of government; (vii) use all the local resources available in decision making and service delivery, e.g. universities, senior citizens, business community; (viii) welcome technological improvements in service delivery; (ix) award excellence in staff and community representatives – be honest, and open about shortcomings; (x) always try to build trust and respect.

A final thought on smart cities. Or maybe better stated, leading cities. The world is facing enormous challenges today: climate negotiations stalemate, financial troubles in Europe, political gridlock in Washington, the ‘Arab Spring’, emerging voices in East Asia, economic stagnation and not nearly enough jobs, shortcomings on the Millennium Development Goals and a billion people still in egregious poverty. These problems are largely the purview of national governments, but so far their track record is not encouraging. There are many reasons for this and local (city) governments are certainly not blameless, nor are urban residents. But it is not a question of blame – but rather of pragmatism and action. During the next decade smart cities will be defined mainly as those able to act within national and global constraints; those that work well with others, service the old and poor, and those that try to provide a local environment nurturing to all. Doing so is smart.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

Join the Conversation

December 27, 2011

Thanks Laura

Good point. I agree, somehow capturing a respectful two-way sharing of information and understanding is critical. Cities can do a lot more when they know they're supported by residents - and residents are usually willing to do a lot more if they know the potential benefits.

Laura Hagg
December 20, 2011

Hi Dan - thanks for a great post! I too squirm when I hear build a better planet. If I may, I would like to add or enhance your top ten list. I would say not just good communication between government and citizen but meaningful participation. We really need to engage our citizens and find meaningful ways that they can contribute to their community. And engaged citizenry can hold officials accountable and contribute a more open and transparent government. I worked in local government in the US and now with ICMA - so this issue is important to me. Thanks for capturing things so well. Laura

Sarah Remmei
September 11, 2014

Hi Dan, I came across your article while searching for smart cities, you have beautifully sum up here what make up a city that is smart. I particularly agree that poor cities can adopt smart cities idea.
Since cities not countries will be driving economic development and steering towards sustainability, it is only relevant that it should invest in making it smart. My only doubt is how can this be adopted in cities in developing countries. For instance, in Indian cities some have advance IT and even hub of technology but it lacks good governance to drive towards smart cities, the biggest flaws is lack of basic services.
In Delhi there are local residents group set up to monitor and be accountable for residential cluster. It was a good initiative and initially promising but now it is under performing. Would you consider population size as an advantage or disadvantage in trying to make cities smart? With the ever growing and huge population pressure like Delhi, I have doubts in big cities ever becoming a smart city.

Dan H
September 11, 2014

Thanks Sarah
Good questions - not sure how to answer them all in a quick email. But ... (i) I don't think city-size matters that much for a city to be smart or not. Smaller cities can usually move more quickly, but larger cities have more resources. In the end most innovations come from the community (neighbourhood level) and the (smart) city empowers those ideas.
I think it is similar with developing/developed or richer/poorer cities. Some great initiatives came out of Indian cities for example: CNG conversions in Delhi, the community portal in a slum (linked into city hall), large-scale composting.
Every city is at its own stage of development.
My guess is you will see cities establishing 'smart clubs' a bit like C40 and ICLEI but much more about working together to be smarter overall, and not just the mayors talking to each other. The old adage of 'two (or more) heads are better than one' is the basis of why humans move to cities. The challenge though is that cities, especially at a neighbourhood level, are immobile (cities are the most grounded, pragmatic level of government). Therefore 'smart clubs' will be mostly virtual partnerships. And the ones that work best will be the ones where the participating cities can leave the 'politics' out of it as much as possible. For example Aleppo, Chicago, Toronto, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Rotterdam, Dar es Salaam, Tehran etc all learning from each other.
Last comment 'smart' in a city is not all that smart. It's not rocket science or brain surgery, it's more about willpower, consensus, measurement, continuous improvement. It's hard and often not all that sexy - a bit like joining a gym and trying to lose 10 kg. Often it is easier to do hard things together with partners. Cities are smart in looking for partners wanting to head in the same direction.