Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Smart Cities – Beyond IT

Last week I was in Ghent attending the Future Internet Conference and the assembly of the ENoLL (European Network of Living Labs). I had a presentation of our project Open Cities and I also was invited to participate in a panel on Smart Cities.
Curiously enough even when the concept of Smart Cities speaks of Innovation, there was little talk about this aspect. Mostly most of the speakers focus on technology.
There is certainly nothing wrong with technology. The application of new technologies is a key ingredient that makes possible to think of Smart Cities. However, nobody that needed to transform a company from competing with productivity alone to compete with innovation will think that the addition of technology will solve by itself the problem.
This, probably naïve vision of the transformative power of technology, seems however to lie behind many of the proposals around Smart Cities, from the “Smart City in a box” solutions of large vendors to Future Internet proposals of advance research groups.
Cities have been through history the locus of invention and innovation. From this melting pot, from this dense network of connections between people and ideas is from where many ideas first and trials later have been transform into innovations that changed the world.
This heavily contrasts with City Management, mostly focus on finding effective, proven ways of providing services to citizens. My guess is that in the last decades, the proven part has been enforced, giving little room to experimentation and hence to innovation.
Can we build the Smart Cities of the XXI century that way?
To the despair of the Smart-City-in-a-box vendors, I think we shouldn’t and let me give you three reasons why.
My first argument is about competition. Cities and their hinterlands have become instruments for competition in the territory. Cities compete by attracting talent, companies, industries or developing specialized clusters. And probably this competition is increasing and becoming more global. There are in fact views out there that portray a future where nations will have an increasingly diminishing role (except the small nations in Europe that can be easily identified with Cities or a federation of cities, such as Denmark, Holland, etc…). Therefore if cities need to compete, buying the standard box, is probably not always a good idea and on the contrary developing unique capabilities and being in the forefront of innovation seems to be the path to follow.
Nevertheless the second argument addresses the nature of the proposed solutions. Everybody that knows a bit the field is pretty aware that Smart Cities is a term in-construction. There is not a precise definition of what it means and there are not proven solutions that can be safely applied. Smart Cities will be in years to come the result of a process of co-creation and evolution between technology, citizens, meanings and business models among other factors.
These days of global knowledge and intense connectivity are also the days of Open Innovation because nobody can think that an internal group of experts has the best ideas or the clue for the most appropriate solutions. This is even truer, more evident when we deal with something that is in-construction.  
Therefore, Smart Cities need to be address taking into consideration not only ideas coming from the expertise in the City Hall but also taking advantage of the large base of knowledge outside the City Hall.
My third argument has to do with the special nature of Public Services. In fact in public services maximizing is not about profits, but about a social function and it is certainly odd that you can do that without taking into account the suggestions, the ideas, the desires and the lives of your citizens. This fact provides a different meaning to Open Innovation mechanisms such as Crowdsourcing, there it is not only a  purpose of getting more and different ideas, but also connecting with the feelings, needs and points of view of your citizens.
Therefore, given this framework, it is clear that technology is not enough. Cities have to deal with Innovation Management, but not only that, they have to deal with a new way of relating and engaging their citizens and their communities.
Certainly the private sector is a place where to look for inspiration on how to manage innovation and how to engage users. However, this cannot be a direct translation, cities have to reinvent new ways of engaging users and managing an innovation process that probably won’t be able to do alone anymore, cities will have to begin to collaborate with … other cities.

-- Open Cities is the name of the EU project that we are coordinating that explores all these issues.



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