ICT for smarter cities

A city is a complex system in a dynamic equilibrium. This equilibrium is continuously shaken by several forces acting on its infrastructures.

Well, that was a long series of posts on the topic of smart cities! I would like to close with a recap sharing some ideas on the relations of ICT with city smartification. Nothing new, of course, and there are tons of papers on this theme. ICT is pervasive and you can dig deep in its many implications on cities, their operation and their evolution. 

What I like to do is to take a macro view, picking up a few concepts that I socialised in the previous posts and connecting them to ICT and the effect it can have on cities and their ecosystem.

These were my claims:

1  all cities are smart in the sense that they have managed to attract people and maintain this attraction over time; 

2  no city will ever be smart in the sense that the overall context evolution, internal and external to the city, will make the smart of yesterday look no so smart today and even less tomorrow;

3  smart is not a point of arrival, rather a path;

4  cities are made possible by hard infrastructures, they thrive on hard and soft infrastructures;

5  citizens can become a crucial soft infrastructure in today’s and tomorrow cities.

ICT is relatively new, a baby, in the history of cities. It has less than 150 years, is we start counting from the deployment of telecommunications infrastructures, much less if we look at their pervasive penetration and even less if we consider the digitalization of processes and information.

I tried to summarize the whole jotting down a graph, see the figure.

A city can be seen, for my purposes, as a system attracting external resources because it generates appealing returns. In the diagram I just visualize the attraction on people, more loops would be required to represent other forms of attraction.

There are several reasons why people can be attracted, wealth is but one of them (others can be safety, better access to services, being part of a community,..). Again, for simplicity sake, I chose to visualize just that one.
As a city generates wealth, people are attracted to move into the city however, as they do so, they put a strain on the hard infrastructures sustaining the city and this requires more investment to upgrade those infrastructures thus absorbing part of the wealth. There exist a critical mass of people that can be managed by a set of infrastructure (and investment) given the constraints of the infrastructure technology.

The citizen increase resulting from the attraction, however, can lead to an increase in yield from the production infrastructures, provided the production systems can scale and that the overall market can absorb the increased production.

A different situation applies to soft infrastructures. They tend to scale better and they usually get more powerful as they scale. Hence, the ideal would be to transform hard infrastructures into soft ones (which is not always possible, in the end we drink water and we need hard pipes…).

However, in several cases a softwarisation of hard infrastructures is possible, at least partially. We are seeing this, as an example, in the work being done on telecommunications networks. These infrastructures are clearly “hard”, they need switches and wires, but it is possible to decrease significantly the investment on the hard parts whilst increasing the throughput (capacity) by using software (read Network Function Virtualization and Software Defined Networking). Notice that the separation of the operation plane from the control plane can be "exported" to several other infrastructures through ICT and this is a way of moving from a hard infrastructure to a soft-hard infrastructure.

Logistic infrastructures can also benefit from softwarisation, as can road infrastructures (where software can help in optimizing traffic flow thus effectively increasing the roads capacity).

Production infrastructures are now targeted by softwarisation: be it robots, 3D printers, industry 4.0; these are “hard” technologies that leverage on massive presence of ICT leading to an increase in productivity. They are also leading to a decrease in cost that in turns expand the potential market (thus relieving the two constraints that I mentioned in counteracting the benefit of an increased population).  It is also true that the evolution in production technologies tend to decrease the human labor but, although there are some controversial opinions, they increase the labor opportunities in the ecosystem.

Soft infrastructures can also be affected by ICT. In some cases the infrastructure itself has been created by ICT (think about the distribution of information based on tweets or the connections established by Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook). As I said, the nice thing about soft infrastructures is that they usually scale with little economic burden and can produce significant increase in value as they scale (although their scaling may be constrained by social factors, see the Dunbar number).

Technology, and ICT in particular, has a crucial role in the evolution of the infrastructures and in turns in the smartification of cities.


We ought to remember that cities are in a dynamic equilibrium and whatever happens has consequences on the whole. Hence a global view to the smartification of cities is needed. At the same time technology deployment is a step by step endeavor that has to balance economic constraints and social adaptation capability (and desirability). In addition there are several players and constituencies at work, each focusing on a specific aspect. This result in a segmentation in deployment and evolution. A master plan of the Municipality that can provide the overall vision and the roadmap is highly desirable.

ICT can support in the preparation and monitoring of this "master plan". The monitoring is particularly important since it can provide evidence on the impact of segmented action on the whole and be the base for fine tuning of the roadmap. In addition this monitoring should connect to the citizenship and to the soft infrastructure they form. Awareness is the first step towards mobilising forces towards the smartification of the city.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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