Smartening up the City

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

There are some leaps in technology that seize the mind and imprint themselves indelibly on the memory. There can hardly be anyone over the age of 50 who doesn’t recall their grainy view of the first man on the Moon, and people who are quite a bit younger will remember when, say, paying a bill or booking a holiday online was still a novel experience.

There are other changes which, while they are already having far more impact on our lives than the Moon landings, seem to have crept up on us, almost by stealth. The advent of the Smart City looks very much like being one of the latter.

The Seminar Smart Cities and the Internet of Things, which BSRIA attended on 16th July, helped to flesh out some of these. One key factor is of course the sheer all-encompassing variety and complexity and scale of a modern city, as reflected in the technology required to support it. This was underlined by the presentations on the range of “smart” cities, from major building consultants, to companies working closely with utilities, to data analytics companies.

This points to a pluralistic approach where different companies collaborate, each contributing their own particular skills, rather than one where a mega-corporation tries to orchestrate everything.  As one speaker pointed out, the smart car alone is likely to involve motor manufacturers, battery and power specialists, grid utilities, digital IT specialists, and the advertising and public relations industry (interestingly, two of the three first people I spoke to represented public relations companies). And that is before one gets on to the subject of the role of city and national authorities.

While the seminar focussed, understandably, on the elements that comprise the “Internet of Things”, making up ‘the nuts and bolts’ of the smart city, it also convinced me that we need to pay more attention to the wider social, political and economic context.

What makes a city smart? Given the combination of complexity and subjectivity, that is always going to be a hard question to answer. Nonetheless a group of academic institutions did rank 75 smart cities across Europe based on the “smartness” of their approach to the economy, mobility, the environment, people, living and governance.

When I measured the ranking of smart cities in each country against that country’s average income, I was struck, but not that surprised, that there was an almost linear correlation between a country’s wealth, and the ranking of its ‘smartest’ city. Thus at one extreme Luxembourg, easily the richest country in Europe, and second richest in the world, was also judged to have the smartest city. Lowest ranked was Bulgaria, which also had the lowest per capita income of all the countries on the list. Most other countries were in a ‘logical’ position in between.

Smartening up the city

One can of course argue whether smart cities are mainly a cause or a consequence of a country’s wealth. Up until now I suspect it is mainly a matter of richer countries being able to afford more advanced technology, not least because the relative economic pecking order has not changed that much in the past 25 years, i.e.. since before the smart city era really got underway, indeed if anything the countries on the bottom right of our chart have been catching up economically, which could be why countries like Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia are doing better in the smart city stakes than their income might suggest.

Luxembourg is of course unusual in one other significant respect. In terms of size, and population, it is about the size of a city, and is politically and economically very much focussed on its eponymous capital city. This raises a question sometimes posed in other contexts: Is the “city state” making a comeback, and could this have a bearing on the development of the smart city? In this respect it surely speaks volumes that Singapore, probably the closest entity to a city state in the modern world is not only highly productive economically but frequently cited in the history of the smart city, going back to the days when it pioneered road pricing more than a generation ago, and one of the cities mentioned in this seminar.

If you are laying down the guidelines for a smart city then there are clearly advantages in having an authority with the resources and powers of a government, combined with the local knowledge and accessibility of a city.  But given that splitting up the world into hundreds if not thousands of new ‘city states’ does not look like a viable option, what can be done to create a framework in which smart cities can flourish in a way that is responsive to their citizens’ needs?

Even in larger countries, the Mayors of major cities are often heavyweight national figures, enjoying wide ranging  powers. This applies to cities like New York, Berlin, Paris and, more recently London. One of the most interesting developments in Britain is the growing recognition that while London is already in effect a global economic power, other cities have been struggling to keep up. While this problem long pre-dates the smart city, it speaks volumes that, with a general election due next year, all of the major parties are now committing to giving more powers to major cities outside of the capital, possibly with more directly elected mayors.

Given the nature of democratic politics there is still no guarantee that this will happen, especially given governments’ traditional reluctance to hand over power, but with Scotland likely to enjoy greater autonomy even if it votes to remain in the UK, the pressure to devolve more power to cities and regions in the rest of the UK will be that much greater.

Even this would not of itself promote smart cities, but it would mean that city mayors or leaders seeking to promote and coordinate smart city developments, and companies and interest groups looking for partners, would have much more powerful instruments within their grasp.

BSRIA’s Worldwide Market Intelligence team produces an annual report into Smart Technologies. To find out more go to our website

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