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Published on 15 de March, 2016 at Cities and Regions

Smart cities or citizens?

By Pol Solà
4 min read

Over the past few years, the term ‘Smart City’ is becoming quite popular to define a horizon of efficiency and optimization in the processes of urban management through information and communications technology (ICT) to embrace major political, economic and environmental issues arising from urban phenomenon.

Thus, Gartner defines as a smart city the urbanized area where several public and private sectors cooperate to achieve sustainable outcomes by analysing contextual information in real-time shared information systems and operated by the different sectors (Source: Gartner – Smart Cities definition, 2015).

Private initiative: Smart City Expo World Congress

Barcelona wants to position itself as a benchmark, accepting the Smart City Expo World Congress and attracting global experts on the subject. During the November 2015 edition more than 70 start-ups gathered in the fields of energy efficiency and smart cities. Also, more than 500 cities all over the world came to Barcelona, including names like New York, Tel Aviv and Vienna, showing how they imagine their future and what actions are underway. This implementation is based mainly on mobile technologies. In the words of the director of the Congress, Ugo Valentí, “Smartphones allow you to circulate by Bicing (the public bicycle service driven by the Barcelona City Council) and find out which cycling stations are available and which are empty, or avoid to go around looking for a place where to park. All these applications help to make the city more efficient and more sustainable. I my opinion, mobile phone is the best invention for smart cities“, he claimed.

The conference was divided into several areas (governance, mobility, public – private partnership, sustainability, technology and innovation, start-ups -4YFN-m and the so called circular economy). In addition, they were held as well BcnRail Congress –smart mobility- and Smart Grids Rural Congress, focusing on territorial balance. Have a look to the main interventions in this YouTube list.

Public initiatives: SmartCat

The Catalan government has sought to promote its SmartCat Strategy to deploy smart city projects for Catalonia to become a smart region, a strategy included under the European Strategy for Growth 2020 umbrella.

Thus, the Strategy emphasizes how the implementation of such solutions is limited both in place and time, a kind of isolated initiatives lacking the required holistic vision. The strategy highlights the main barriers as low adaptability of local government structures, lack of coordination at the local level and absence of clear political leadership. Therefore, the Strategy proposes some structural solutions to face the challenge and quotes many examples in several thematic areas of activity (economic development, education and culture, sustainability, management, maintenance of public space, mobility, participation and security, among others). Finally, some potential funding mechanisms are collected from European programs and public-private partnerships.

The origins

Initially, the Smart City project had been defined mainly by lobbying strategies from tech companies to sell tech solutions to the local government. From that point, some voices have arisen claiming that this process should not be driven from tech companies only come. Conversely, citizens and public interest should have a word by identifying social needs and demands to put technology at people’s service. As Genis Roca from Roca Salvatella Consultants says “Cities do not want to be smart but innovative, putting the focus on citizenship and not on the engineers,” asking for a participatory accent, based on citizen empowerment as the paradigm. The challenge, therefore, is to transform a tech company led process to a social demands led process. Clearly, governments should play here a key role in driving the process of citizen participation.

This paradigm shift towards the Social Smart City concept as an innovative city should never be considered in terms of conflict. On the contrary, it is an opportunity for both players, a win-win between technology companies and citizens. In short, a synthesis process between supply and demand. And, above all, this process should be seen as an opportunity in terms of city branding to become an international benchmark to export such tech solutions. In this sense, it is a need to attract international companies and to foster the creation of social oriented local tech firms that can generate new job opportunities, taking advantage of new areas of economic activity such as Big Data and Open Data and turning cities into city labs for this kind of social transformation processes.

The path, then, is firmly established and putting this issue on the city agenda can be the key to become an innovative city and to improve people’s lives.

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