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My reflections on the Smart to Future Cities International Conference 2016, London

I was greatly happy to attend the two days conference on Smart Cities on the 26-27 April in London.

The conference gathered public officials, innovative businesses, representatives of international programmes and researchers from many countries.

The conference highlighted the benefits of technological innovation and systems and the importance of relevant data and information-sharing as the basis for decision in smart cities and regions.

Technological innovation for more smart cities

The great number of technological innovations ranging from smart waste management, flood and energy management, enabling multi-modal transport information, to the open smart home, coordinating digital care and other services to the citizens reveal the extraordinary potentials for making cities more functioning and sustainable and the lives of their citizens easier. However, several challenges face local governments underway.

Relevant data and challenges

Moving to these intelligent systems with their potential to create more connectivity in cities and regions requires the availability of relevant (maybe standarised) data that should be smartly collected and managed as it would be the basis for making decisions, going in partnerships and building systems. Emphasis was placed on the importance data needs to relate to citizens and spaces and be differentiated in the case of services according to supervision, provision and need. Other important questions included the availability of data in the needed format, the economic constraints, who should own the data and how, with whom to share the data and who is interested in the data. Some presentations placed emphasis on the need to move from a fragmented open data ownership (data in companies, research and public administrations, etc,) to a one-stop-shop. In parallel, issues of cities’ security and citizens’ privacy (need for authentication) were raised and underlined as important to deal with through special aware systems that distinguished private information from shared information (need to agree the level of openness we should have).

Public sector management – holistic approaches

While some presentations emphasized the benefit of reverting to municipal /public led companies of services based on holistic approaches to data and provision (the case of Bristol) and the necessity of holistic approaches (Birmingham), Other cases (Greater London) stressed the main challenge as coordinating the fragmented services across the many London boroughs, including social care, and therefore the need to de-smartify.

Innovation in management

Not only Smart Cities require smart technologies, smart data collection and system management, but also, and very importantly, the availability of resources in the wide sense, including skills and the necessity of being capable of understanding cities’ challenges and how to meet them smartly. The role of innovation in management has been emphasized to facilitate collaboration, enable dialogue and commitment, get the right people and find the money. Here it is important to acknowledge the challenge related to coordinating among stakeholders with different interests, different time of response and variant expectations of turnover.

The need to reinvent connectivity in the city bringing together the benefit of diverse programmes and intentions to make our cities liveable, resilient and programmable was emphasized.

Knowledge sharing

Sharing among cities and working together on smart cities programmes was highlighted as reducing costs, including for example the cost of research. Several European and international programmes with their focus, partnerships and benefit were mentioned (European Innovation Partnership, Urban Platforms and others).

Smart cities programmes in quick evolving markets

It was eye-catching to realise that in the quick-developing countries like China and India, many smart cities programmes and systems have been launched in a short period. The EU-China programme brought 15 cities together. This highlights the advantages of flexible management systems, but at the same time, places emphasis on the importance of smart city strategies should be directed towards prompting more inclusiveness in cities and regions and serve sustainability goals.

Smart cities and democracy

Smart cities must be democratic inclusive cities, since smartness should serve people and depends on innovation in leadership and management systems, breaking silo patterns and encouraging more horizontal structures with public and private actors, civil society and the citizens.

Some Reflections

As a result of the conference, several issues come to mind.

  • Smart cities are those employing their information, technology and innovation to serve sustainability and resilience goals and better place making. Smart cities need strong visions and visionary leaders.

  • Planning for more smart and sustainable cities should be based on integrated approaches and strategic thinking, coordinating plans and implementation and thinking of costs, including to the citizens.

  • The relationship between smart city strategies and society needs to be explored, as well as Smart city strategies in a changing political climate.

  • In general, the barriers to smart cities need exploration.

  • Can cities in less democratic and less decentralised systems/countries be smart? Smart cities – smart nations?

  • Is data neutral?

  • Technology and data cannot on their own make our economy and society smarter, as we need flexible and people-kind systems enabling adaptation, flexibility in decision and innovation. Many people face the rigidity of systems and are excluded from services because of the lack of holistic social/human approaches, and not technology or data.

  • Moving to smart societies requires exploring what would be important to coordinate at the national level, what can be led/decentralised to local governments and what can be coordinated among local governments, for example via the cities’ platforms.

  • How smart is smart enough?

On the conference:

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