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Smart Cities Are Not Intelligent: They Are Astute

By Andrea Di Maio | December 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

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Yesterday Gartner held a local briefing in Milan on the topic of Smart Cities. This was attended by local government, vendors and research organizations. Bettina Tratz-Ryan, who is our lead for Sustainability research, and myself were joined by Renato Galliano, Director for Economic Innovation and University of the City of Milan, and Michele Vianello, General Manager of the VEGA Scientific Park in Venice.

Bettina and I shared the Gartner view that smart city endeavors need to be focused on specific city problems, must leverage existing infrastructure, skills and financial resources, and must be developed in an evolutionary fashion rather than being dealt with as top-down programs. In particular we made the point that smart cities are a means to an end: the end – be it financial sustainability, environmental sustainability, better quality of life, attractiveness for business, and so forth – is what matters, and smartness must be employed and deployed to achieve that end.

We also made the point that “smart” should not be read as “intelligent”. This would indeed assume that most cities are not intelligent today, just because they have not poured millions of dollars into technology. The right synonym to be used is “astute”.

Being astute means to be able to make the best possible use of scarce (and declining) resources. It means to effectively leverage available funding. It means to reuse as much as possible of what exists. It means to realize that sustainability requires collaboration within and across traditional boundaries.

Despite the lack of any prior coordination, both guest speakers supported this view. Galliano stressed the need for collaboration between five different constituencies to make smart cities a reality: government, the business community, citizens, the technology sector and the finance sector. I found the latter quite intriguing, since financial support is essential to make these initiatives sustainable over time. There are often discussions about how smart city business models should rely on public private partnerships with the business community and with vendors, but very little attention is given to the role and maturity of banks and other financial services firms to help cushion the risk.

Vianello, who was the former deputy mayor of Venice before moving to head the innovation park, highlighted that, before building more infrastructure, cities should start leveraging the best infrastructure they have, i.e. citizens themselves.  An increasing number of citizens carry devices – like phones, tablets, GPS-enabled cameras – that turn them into sensors: the example of Waze and how it is used in cities like San Francisco comes to mind.

But he went further, challenging those countries – like Italy – that are pursuing an electronic ID card scheme: he argued that the ultimate identifier of anything (an object or a person) should be an IP address.

We also touched upon open data initiatives, which are often seen as part of smart city programs, as well as the role of strategic planning.

On the former, the sentiment prevailed that open data is indispensible as a potential source of value for government, businesses and the society at large. However there was also broad agreement that there is little evidence so far that value is being realized and that there is need for some form of open data portfolio management and examples where value is being accrued inside the administration.

On the latter, Vianello argued that because of the rapid pace of technology change (and related citizen behavioral changes), doing a strategic plan for a smart city is futile, and one has to adopt evolutionary models, based on subsequent pilots. A representative from the City of Genoa, which has a good reputation for its smart city initiatives in the country, challenged him and stated that without some degree of strategic planning most of these initiatives go nowhere. As usual the right answer is in the middle: the absence of any strategic planning is unacceptable, but it is essential to use techniques that help deal with uncertain futures, like scenario planning. They would lead to alternative strategic plans (depending of how technology, economy and society would interact to shape the future) and to identify those commonalities across plans that indicate relatively safe bets for investment.

We also discussed about the risks that national or European funding may cause (incidentally, a decree about smart community funding was approved by our parliament yesterday). While most people look at this funding as a blessing ,the rules and constraints that come with it and the leading role that vendors and academia tend to play, may steer smart city initiatives away from those areas that need them most. As a result they may turn into interesting one-off experiences that do not stick into local governments as part of a longer-term transformation process.

The bottom line is that real necessity (problems to be solved) remains the best driver, and smartness does not mean intelligence but astuteness. Therefore the best advice for cities to become truly smart is the same Steve Jobs gave to Stanford students: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”.

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