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INFRASTRUCTURE FOR THE RISE OF SMART CITIES?

By Michel Sudarskis
INTA

Michel Sudarskis, Secretary General, INTA, International Urban Development Association

 Economic data indicate that the global market of technologies related to “Smart city” will reach more than $ 39 billions (27 billions euros) in 2016. Despite this optimism, local decision-makers are still interrogative and confused on how to address the role of large digital infrastructures in their city.

Government and business leaders recognize that the technology-enabled city is a source of sustainable growth and a powerful tool for tackling environmental and economic challenges. By unlocking technology, infrastructure and public data, cities can open up new value chains that spawn innovative applications, and information products that make possible sustainable modes of city living and working. While smart initiatives are underway in urban centers around the world, most cities have yet to realize the enormous potential value from integrated, strategically-designed smart infrastructure. Through clear vision and leadership, civic leaders and executives can help cities make the transition to initiatives that maximize the smart city value opportunity.

The city has always been conceived as a place of exchange; with the use of the digital technology a smart city increases the intensity of exchange, of networking and communication, which are the basic elements of city life and economy. Digital technology and infrastructure could be the point of entry of new social and economic ambitions: it is a social issue as it involves the collective and democratic participation of users (social networks); it is a political issue that questions management and urban governance and its evolution; it is a technical question with the exponential growth of information technologies (cloud computing, big data).

INTA

 

Optimization of the existing city by digital technology

There is no doubt that the city driven by smart infrastructure can generate new applications and information services that enable different lifestyles and work. However, infrastructures alone are not sufficient. They need “intelligence” to remain efficient. Digital technology is a factor of change in the sense of shifting from an infrastructure-led logic to a service-led economy. Developing smart infrastructure against a backdrop of dwindling public finance means being honest about why technology is being introduced, which may shift the focus rather to improving the essential systems of urban services, than providing smarter technology across the board.

Making cities smart requires other elements such as a vision of their future, and here what matters is not technology per se, but the image people have on key issues: climate change, how will we live tomorrow; work: seamless integration from home to working places – leisure: where and how the world comes to you – life: longer, easier and highly personalised – home: the heart of modern living; etc. Some refers to the use and dissemination of digital technology as a source of employment in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, favouring access to employment and vocational training, and being a facility instrument in the process of democratic representation and participation in civic life. Obviously this is a restrictive approach, but with the merit to draw attention to the soft dimension of the “smart city” process next to the infrastructure-led approach.

 

The manufacture of the city by (with) digital technology. Digital technology leads to rethink the process of urban development, in order to build better connected housing and neighbourhoods, improve public spaces, foster inhabitants’ relationship towards a smarter and more productive city; beyond transport, businesses and education, a digital plan must also focus on improving the state of play for urban living by offering new services to residents. Digital technology enables among other effects a shift in the political relationship between citizens and the policy system: from complaining (traditional political attitude) to listening (via internet or other digital devices) and then to direct and immediate participation (via social networks). It enables also the reduction in the number of intermediaries in daily life (internet booking is the case), supporting practices empowerment and spontaneity.

Today, public funding is under pressure. To reduce costs, including public service costs, local authorities will externalise more and more city services such as accounting, human resources and information, in order to maintain essential services such as education and social support. In these times of rigor, local authorities should make a strong analysis of profitability of their investments in smart products and processes as this will lead to the generalization of capital costs borne by the private sector, coupled with long-term concession for the management of the service.

Finally, urban planning evolution under digital pressure means working towards collective intelligence by the presence of the user, via the digital system, in public decision making. If “educating” end-users is needed to ensure citizens’ empowerment, it is necessary also to accompany elected officials who need the skills to anticipate the development of their territory and the role of digital services. It is a challenge the G20 should take on.

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