Smart Cities: just a fad?

The increase of interest in Smart Cities as shown by looking at Google Trends.

Did you have a look on Google Trends and did you see the frequency of searches about “smart cities”? If not give it a try. You will see that in the last 3 years the frequency has grown significantly increasing even more in 2014.  This has happened in synch with the growth in investment by local Government and in case of Europe by transnational projects that are seeing in technology deployment a solution to ageing infrastructures and increasing demands of a growing urban population.

Indeed, the last hundred years, and more so in the last fifty, twenty, have seen an explosion, an abundance of technologies that seems to contribute to any path of life. And cities are a melting pot of, often un-coordinated, technology applications. Technologies have become a sort of metrics to gauge the evolution of a city: we have started measuring the smartness of a city in terms of penetration of smart phones, the access to broadband connections, electronic payments, digital health care… 

Many would say that the more technology is deployed the smarter the city. Which, of course, is far from true!

This variety is well appreciated if you create a word cloud out of many articles on smart cities.  You’ll see technology, communications, fiber, computing, sensors, applications, infrastructures, grid, big data….

At the same time you’ll also see words like business, social, benefits, discussion, needs, leaders…. that bring forward a completely different layer of concepts.

Depending on whom you ask you’ll get a different interpretation of what a smart city is. And of course, if you ask the major on her plans for the future, “is she planning for a stupid or for a smart city”, what would you guess her answer will be? And very likely she will start to tell you what plans are in place to deploy technology and make better infrastructures.

This reliance on infrastructure can also be seen by most metrics used to define the smartness of a city and to compare it with the smartness with another. There are plenty of ranking, both within a Country and worldwide, comparing the smartness of cities. And, of course, since there is no agreement on a universal metrics you find different rankings depending on who is measuring (and unfortunately often depending on “for whom” it is measured).

The International Telecommunications Union has a group in charge of defining metrics for smart cities, and by far these are based on technological infrastructures, like telecommunications infrastructures.

The IEEE in its Smart Cities Initiative is using the ITU metrics as a starting point but then is asking each city to define its own metrics: the objective is not to compare one city to another, something I feel is, in general, a mistake, rather to have a tool to measure the improvement of the city on those parameters that the city itself find relevant. This seems, at least to me, a better and more useful approach.

The fact is, we have matured a strong perception that our cities can benefit from technology advances, as so many products and services have, and these, in turns, can help meeting the growing challenges of resource management, economics constraints and social issues cities are facing.

Notice that these challenges seem new, and if not new they seem to have reached unprecedented levels; however, they are not!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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