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Webinar Round-up: What Makes a Smart City?

Last week's webinar on Smart Cities by Sustainable Cities Collective was a successful discussion of many of the controversial aspects of smart cities. Here you can read the Twitter record (Storify) and below is the podcast and slide show. 

Listen to the audio: (length 00:60:00)

    or download here (right-click, save as)

As the convener I also made my own notes and the following is my summary.

What is a smart city?

Smart cities according to our panel are about connecting things and people in both technological and traditional ways but the overall aim is to help government perform better and the public to receive services better.

By themselves, smart cities are not sustainable and this is a vital point that was repeated several times. Dario Hidalgo, Director for Integrated Transport at EMBARQ, mentioned that this was particularly highlighted by a professor at a recent conference on smart cities in Montréal that he attended.

"In order to be sustainable city needs the sustainability parts first as a design prerequisite before implementing 'smart' components," he said.

Melanie Nutter, a former Director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, agreed that policies should come first. Other elements follow. Sensors for example can be an enabling form of assistive technology.

She said that the original idea of smart cities, which one may call Smart Cities 1.0, focused on technology and engineering. But the concept behind Smart Cities 2.0 is about putting people first.

"You can't manage what you can't measure," she said. "Smart by itself is not a measurable goal or strategy. We must answer questions like 'Do we want smart sprawl or revitalization?' Technology is about data but community revitalization is about wisdom."


Technology is helping us in many ways such as with mobility, said Storm Cunningham, Publisher, Revitalization News. Google Transit is widely spread for example. There are systems happening everywhere such as car sharing.

The next thing will be congestion pricing (as in London) and parking management. "But also when I go to a smart cities conference I hear about traffic management which is also green since it reduces emissions".

Dario pointed out that the only fully sustainable vehicle is the bicycle and in many cities people are going back to it. It is the main mode of transport in some cities such as Copenhagen. Its connection to the 'smart' agenda is about efficiency, cheapness and health.

Commuter cycling to work in a suit

Commuter cycling to work in a suit.

He did not think that driverless cars were sustainable, although they do hold the promise of being able to slash fatality and injury figures from traffic accidents. Cycling can be helped by smart technology such as bike sharing projects.

Graph on the adoption of sustainable transport around the world

Graph on the adoption of sustainable transport around the world. Credit: Embarq

Melanie said that apps can help the sustainable transport agenda by pulling in transport options from all aspects and aggregating them.

Storm commented that walking is properly sustainable. "Pedestrians need to be formally incorporated into transit plans and we need a better analysis of where the blocks are to encourage walking. Revitalization of community districts to make them more attractive for walking through should be high on the agenda."

Do we believe the hype?

Melanie agreed: "real-time data will reach everywhere. The smart cities hype does not represent a silver bullet solution to all the problems cities face. Cities thinking about implementing the technology need to engage with providers properly then it be fully informed before engaging in procurement and talk to the private sector about the best way it can fulfil the aims of the sustainability agenda".

While the smart city idea works on a project basis, it does not work so well at a systemic level, said Storm. The basic decision-making rules of civic government need changing to accommodate the cross-departmental and cross-sectoral opportunities of the technology available.

The places where the smart city agenda is working is where it focuses on renewal, re-purposing existing infrastructure and reconnecting existing assets, Storm said.

He added that humanity itself needs to adapt as it moves into cities and is destroying the world's ecosystems. Up until now, in what he termed the Anthropocene era, "humanity has been in adaptive conquest mode. Now we need to move into 'adaptive renewal' mode."

Diagram on progress of humanity from Anthropocene to adaptive mode

Diagram on progress of humanity from Anthropocene to adaptive mode. Credit: Storm Cunningham

What makes a city smart?

In answer to a question from a member of the audience, Carl DuPoldt: "What are some of the components of a smart city? What makes a city smart?" Melanie recounts had an actual instance of implementation: "Local representatives met in the working group decided that they would use advanced ICT technology to collect data. The purpose was to engage citizens for a high quality of life".

Dario cited the huge advantages of compact, connected cities such as Barcelona, contrasting it with Atlanta. But how can a city as sprawled and car-dependent as Atlanta transition to becoming like Barcelona? By becoming less centred and more dependent upon nearby local hubs for services and jobs.

Diagram on urban density and sustainability contrasting Barcelona and Atlanta

Diagram on urban density and sustainability contrasting Barcelona and Atlanta. Credit: New Climate Economy.

Smart traffic management can include ensuring that service deliveries are made at night time when they interfere less with other traffic, he said in response to a question from listener Marcus Busby.

Layout design for smart garden city with sustainable transport routes by Marcus Busby

Layout design for smart garden city with sustainable transport routes by Marcus Busby.

Melanie noted that in a survey of 300 urban sustainability directors they found that they had to take a step back in order to examine how they can implement a smart city strategy. They need to look at the way their city was governed, change management and integrating new technology with a management. "It needs a lot of ground work to be done," she said, citing research at

A task force to define a digital strategy and how the city is to use data needs to be created as a next stage, followed by the appointment of data officer. Included in the strategy should be a means of helping the private sector better understand the administration's needs.

Storm commented that as far as strategic planning goes people don't often or easily understand strategies. He defined the order of implementation as: vision first, then strategy/ies, then plan(s) or programs, then projects. He mentioned the importance of confidence boosting, therefore to work on a pilot first.

Dario cited the positive example of a waterfront development in Toronto.

In response to a question from listener Mahsa Ghaznavi: "Is public education a driving factor in better promotion of sustainable cities?" Melanie said that it was critical: without public participation projects don't succeed so education is vital.

The wisdom of crowds

Social networks can help to tap into the wisdom of crowds. A referendum in Vancouver on transit strategies was cited as an example. The disadvantage of this example was that people needed to mail in their ballots. It should have been possible to do it via email or text.

From the point of view of including everyone in such ballots off-line approaches are just as important as online ones, noted Melanie.

Crown-sourcing technology allows people to get momentum behind the project so they cannot be opposed by government and bypass the planning system, the panellists noted, citing the example of the pedestrian route Highline in New York City. Similarly the Lowline, which was about using an underground terminal. The organiser went on kickstarter and raised $100,000 making it an offer the administration could stop refuse.


Cities are not measuring their sustainability, but smart technology gives us the opportunity to do this. We can also use modelling with feedback from sensors around the city. a greenhouse gas e-sustainability initiative was mentioned which has a name of saving 9.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Cities can decide to get involved with this.

Storm underlined that the embodied energy of 'smart' infrastructure projects needs to be estimated and measured as part of the decision-making process on whether they should go ahead.

The rebound effect

Listener Erika Boeing asked: "How can smart city development help to avoid the rebound effect, where energy savings save money which is often spent on other energy-intensive goods?"

Dario responded that efficient cars that people drive more for the same amount of money, but properly sustainable programs will encourage people to shift to more sustainable forms of transport. They can also encourage them not to travel at all by creating homes next jobs and services. Revitalisation can bring neighbourhoods back to life.

Garden City Singapore is now becoming a jungle city, said Storm. Ravines are being brought back to life. Nature is being encouraged to re-invade the city. Resilience is about community is being able to recover from disaster and adaptation is about copying nature and integrating it in the urban matrix.


The final topic was whether or not the panel is optimistic for the future.

It was felt that due to unmanaged population growth several cities will face meltdown. Dario was optimistic. "There is a paradigms change going on about moving people not cars, about walking and cycling. Technology is needed to do a lot of work and there are plenty of networks to encourage discussion and accelerate the process."