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What is a City, and How Does it Get Smarter?

March 21, 2013 - 0 Comments

The journey to smarter cities and communities has gained momentum in recent years, as a recent BBC article highlights. I’d like to offer a few points from my experiences over the last five years exploring this territory:

  • First, the critical issue is how to move beyond visions and prototypes, to scaling and adoption.
  • Second, the whole notion of smart cities should also be reappraised.
  • And third, the Internet of Everything Economy will fuel a transformation across communities, industries, and social interactions.

We are looking at a dynamic concept to which bounded definitions — whether physical, digital, organizational, or technological — seem increasingly inadequate.

In the United Kingdom, the great cities of the north barely register when it comes to international measures of size, happiness, innovation, sustainability, or growth, as a comprehensive review of global city indices in 2011 by Greg Clark illustrated. However, reality for anyone who knows these cities seems to contradict this lack of representation. My appraisal of this dichotomy is that when political boundaries alone define a city, this excludes the true extent of the city, and its role in the economy of a wider region.

For example, the historical, cultural, and economic significance to the global economy of cities such as Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle, as the largest cities in three U.K. regions, are more accurately illustrated through consideration of their role in a wider metropolitan region, and also their suburban and rural hinterlands.

In an increasingly interconnected society, I think we need to reappraise how we view urban, suburban, and rural communities, evaluating them instead as parts of a complex and intensely interrelated system. An understanding of this is reflected in  the U.K. government’s policies regarding  the Localism Bill and Lord Heseltine’s growth review. The politically defined city sufficiently describes neither an emerging, digitally connected city nor a multi-centered urbanized region. Maybe technology even enables us to revisit urban planning from previous decades, such as Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities movement (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Garden Cities.

Garden Cities

Source: Howard, 1902

Smart Cities Are Complex

Recently, several groups in the smart cities debate have been exploring the complexity of today’s cities. Cisco IBSG has also been discussing this topic with groups like the World Bank, Metropolis, and other city associations, along with the British Standards Institute (BSI) in the United Kingdom. In addition, BSI and the U.K. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) co-hosted a workshop on Smart City frameworks last month.

Other commentators and thinkers are also exploring this subject. Rick Robinson from IBM recently cited Christopher Alexander’s 1970’s Pattern Language perspectives, and applied this idea to cities. Alexander’s work has been a pillar of my team’s exploration on smart cities. In my view, he stands along with Paul Baran (Figure 2), Carlota Perez, and Bill Mitchell as an originator of this entire debate.

Figure 2 – Interconnected Communities: Like the Internet?


Source: Baran, 1962

The paper I wrote with my Cisco IBSG colleague Gordon Falconer last year set out one direction for research that we continue to pursue: a Smart City Framework. References to several complementary perspectives are made there, and in a summary blog post from last year. The City Protocol Society is one group with which we are taking positive steps in this direction. The Smart City Framework we propose describes a potential process that will help key stakeholders and city/community participants to:

  1. Understand how cities operate
  2. Define city objectives and stakeholder roles
  3. Explore the role of ICT within physical city assets

Meanwhile, the U.K. government’s Future Cities Catapult initiative is taking strides to develop a Smart City exemplar with the city of Glasgow, and engaging many other cities. Just this month, the government further announced an investment of £50 million into the setup of a U.K. Future Cities Catapult center in London. More expansive to the wider economy is the parallel Connected Digital Economy Catapult. Cisco is also investing with the British Innovation Gateway programme, and National Virtual Incubator initiative. All of these initiatives underline the point that Smart cities are not about public sector reform alone. Rather, they’re about a new way of engaging, delivering, and participating. There are many excellent examples of this, several of which we reference in a recent paper on participative communities.

There is a clear need for a better dialogue — a learning cities approach — as outlined by my colleagues at the Academy of Urbanism (AoU), and by Tim Campbell in Beyond Smart Cities. How can a country, community, and an integrated regional ecosystem step beyond political boundaries to release the power of enterprise and entrepreneurship. In short, we need to rethink our definitions, develop resilient communities, and support those who are developing new models for public and individual entrepreneurship.

How Cities Embrace the Global Networked Economy

When we start to talk about the Internet of Everything (IoE), the potential for people, data, and things to combine into overlapping processes is infinite. Cisco is developing a number of exemplar projects with cities and in various industries — from smart energy networks to connected vehicles. Cisco estimates that the Value at Stake in the IoE Economy will be $14.4 trillion for private enterprises globally over the next decade.

This is a massive opportunity for the global economy, and one that can be truly accessible only if we tap into the utility of citizens, businesses, and the intrinsic desire to engage.

To reference Eric Raymond’s influential perspective on open source software, do we want The Cathedral or The Bazaar— centrally planned designs or many participatory initiatives — for our cities and communities? I believe this analogy extends to the scope of the smart cities debate. Open-data principles should extend to all industries and sectors. Encouragingly, this is increasingly advocated by governments, businesses, and advocacy groups like the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Open Data Institute.

The risks of crowding out entrepreneurship through centrally controlled initiatives are too high. In our digital age, openness in all its facets — from data to citizen interactions, and designing for spatial heterogeneity — has to be the default path. In one aspect alone — the way we work — this need for openness and spatial rethinking is ringing true.

As highlighted by my group’s perspectives on smart working, and further illustrated by Philip Ross in distributed work in the polycentric city, a city cannot be defined just by its political boundaries, leaving suburban and rural (but fundamentally related) communities out of the conversation.

An earlier version of this article appeared at on February 26, 2013.

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