This purpose-built housing block in Malmö, Sweden is home to a group of everyday tech pioneers. 

Source: E.ON

For three years, the residents of the city’s Western Harbour area have lived in trial apartments to test smart city devices, measuring and controlling their energy consumption to build a detailed picture of people’s energy needs and how to manage them.

The results have helped Malmö and utilities firm E.ON map an innovative future. Once an industrial and manufacturing centre, the city is now Sweden’s fastest-growing, with ambitious plans to become carbon neutral by 2020 and run entirely on renewable energy by 2030. 

Smart city technology, rolled out with the support of residents, is helping it reach that target.

The buy-in of the citizens is especially important, with the success of smart cities no longer simply reliant on clever tech. Particularly in Europe, where there is a strong sense of collective responsibility, smart solutions have been developed through extensive public debate.

Urban leaders will need to be community-builders, acting less like bureaucrats and focusing more on citizens, according to a report from [email protected] and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) Digital Software & Solutions Group called Smart Cities: A Toolkit for Leaders.   

The report features insights from across the technology and urban planning sectors on how smart cities can refocus their strategies around public engagement.

According to the report, smart cities are now in a third phase – Smart Cities 3.0 – where the city itself becomes a platform for interacting,  collaborating and co-creating with citizens. 

Moving the goalposts

Barcelona – first identified as a smart city in 2014 – is a leading example. Decidim (“we decide” in Catalan) is a platform that enables residents to engage with the city in real time, proposing and debating ideas about municipal strategy and urban development. 

Nearly 32,000 people have participated since the platform was established, and the city’s 2016 Municipal Action Plan included almost 7,000 citizen proposals.

Decidim has since been rolled out in many other places, in Spain and beyond. In Mexico, the city of Mérida set up the Decide Mérida platform to empower residents to share ideas about their future.

More than 3,000 people contributed to the area’s 2018-2021 Municipal Development Plan. “Undoubtedly, the Decide Mérida platform will continue to be our ally in making Mérida an increasingly participatory society,” says Renán Barrera, Municipal President of Mérida.

Barcelona too is continuing to put its citizens in the driving seat through other initiatives, like giving residents sensors for their neighbourhoods that are integrated into the city’s Sentilo network. These allow people to share live information about traffic, pollution and noise levels.

The Torre Glòries is pictured at the heart of Barcelona’s technological district. Source: Shutterstock

What does your city need most?

Funding is one of the key challenges when it comes to implementing smart city strategies, so prioritizing is essential for authorities looking to secure maximum value from the technology. 

“The four big pillars for smart cities are urban mobility, energy, telecommunications and public safety,” says Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council. 

In an environment with competing claims for public funds, projects with strong business models do attract backing. 

The American city of Columbus won the 2015 US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge grant of $40 million for its plan to invest in connected infrastructure, electric vehicle charging, and an integrated data platform.

A central feature of the Columbus project was to be inclusive by benefiting a wide range of citizens – for example, by improving transportation to medical care to reduce infant deaths. 

After it won the DoT challenge, other investors also contributed to the tune of around another $100 million. 

Access to all areas

Creating a fair society for everyone was a key focus for Washington, DC, when it first set out to become a smart city – with solutions flexible enough to meet the needs of a diverse population. For example, more affluent residents may want to get across the city in the fastest way possible, while those on lower incomes might be more concerned with easier access to public transit.

Source: Shutterstock

In 2008, the city launched a programme to provide free Wi-Fi to residents. Access is currently available in 650 government buildings, all of the city’s schools, parking lots, municipal swimming pools and recreation centres. 

The aim is to reach 25% of the population by the end of 2019. Alongside integrated data analytics, this level of access can support and enhance social programmes and public-health planning.

Intelligent software can also help cities deliver improved citizen experiences by capturing and connecting data from traditionally siloed city agencies – helping to spot new insights and opportunities to deliver better results for residents.

Listening to the voice of the people

Transparency is a vital part of building trust in local government through smart city projects. 

In Kansas City, which uses technology to monitor population and traffic patterns, and improve services accordingly, the data used to build solutions is made publicly available thanks to a “data bill of rights” that dates back to 2015. 

It means everyone knows what information the city is looking at – and how it’s using it.

 “It’s all about being able to provide water, being able to provide security, being able to provide a business-friendly environment, being able to coordinate with external entities,” says Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer for Kansas City.

“Everything that we’ve done for our smart city strategy has always been about people problems.”