What makes a city smart?

 Ricardo Tavares     February 3 2017

By the end of this year Planet Earth will be home to nearly 7.5bn people, 55% of whom will live in urban areas. By 2050, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the planet will have to support 9.8 billion people, 70% of them living in cities. This is the world we must plan for, starting right now.

Citizens around the world want more transparent local governments efficient in delivering municipal services, reducing bureaucracy, and enabling the happiness of city residents. New technology solutions will play a key role in how quality of life can be maintained and improved across megacities such as Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, São Paulo, Shanghai, Lagos, Bangkok, Seoul, Manila, Delhi and Karachi, as well as in medium and small towns. Air and water quality, transportation, tourism—every aspect of urban life will be touched by smart-city technologies.

Technology in itself, however, is no panacea. It can do little without good governance targeting the use of technology to deliver better life to city residents.   In spite of having done a great deal of work on smart-city policy making, I’m still puzzled by what makes a city really “smart.” In 1993 I visited about 10 cities in the U.S. San Francisco was the smartest to my mind because of its single-ticket integrated transportation system allowing seamless movement from bus to metro to train. Also impressive was the dignifying way the city dealt with its poor. People felt safe to give rides to strangers. Not much technology was involved in that. Fast forward to 2017, I now use Uber when I go to the Bay Area. The heart of the “give a ride to a stranger” spirit was already there 24 years ago!

Meanwhile, many cities hyping the use of technology can’t show the same efficiency, compassion and warmth I found in San Francisco a quarter of a century ago. The explosion of tech may have taken some of SF’s charm away, but I still remember the great time I had in a very smart town. It’s not technology alone which transformed the Bay Area into the global capital of the digital world. It has been good governance and vision of the city leaders which made the city what it is today.

I share these reflections as I prepare to moderate the panel, “Smart City, Connected Citizens,” at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I hope to discuss some of the issues raised here with city managers and technologists on Tuesday, 28 February 2017, 15:30 – 16:40.   I hope you can be there and take part!

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