How academics help make cities smart
Academics are often characterized as pedants, focusing on trivial details and missing the big picture. As with most stereotypes there is an element of truth in this caricature – academics seek precision and with that precision, truth. The first thing some academics will say is “define your terms” and in the case of smart cities this is a very relevant question – a question that so far has no universally accepted answer.
Does this matter?
Of course. Smart city projects are expensive, maybe not as expensive as other major infrastructure projects, but expensive nonetheless. Expensive and unproven. The idea that IT can really make a difference in people’s lives in cities, and as importantly, ensure the sustainability of those cities (and of humanity itself), has yet to be accepted either by the people of cities or by their politicians.
In the absence of an accepted definition of a “smart city”, it is difficult to see how the “best” technologies will be developed and widely implemented; every city will take its own path, and will work with a multitude of companies. These companies, often working in isolation, will develop their own solutions to specific problems as defined by each city; solutions that might not be readily deployable in other cities.
In theory, smart city technologies should enable cities to meet the demands of their citizens more equitably, more efficiently and more effectively. However, to reliably meet this vision, the theory has yet to be thoroughly tested and the systems yet to be created; cities, their people and their politicians, have yet to be convinced that money is better invested in smart technologies than in, for example, a new hospital, a by-pass or a new water treatment plant. At least in those cases people can see something as a consequence of their investment, even if that investment does not result in a tangible improvement in service delivery.
Validation and ideation
Research should be an essential part of any smarter city project – to evaluate impacts, to quantify benefits and to provide independent validation.
However, independent evaluation, quantification and validation are not the only role academics can play. Universities are places where new ideas emerge – often the new ideas that change society. These ideas emerge not because academics are necessarily looking for them; unfortunately ideation doesn’t work like that, or more accurately, human creativity doesn’t work like that. Ideas emerge from the interaction of very diverse people, working on very diverse topics. Many times the deeper the knowledge in one area, the more profound the idea when that knowledge collides with other bodies of knowledge. Unfortunately, great ideas tend to arise unexpectedly, untidily and often go unexploited because the mechanisms of exploitation are inadequate or don’t exist.
Meeting shared challenges
Academics should be essential members of any attempt to make any city smarter; they generate ideas and can independently and reliably evaluate innovations. Although some cities have involved academics in the smartening of their cities, such involvement tends not to be critical, essential or substantial.
One consequence is that such programs tend to progress in relative isolation from each other. Of course many projects are managed by major multinational companies, which are skilled at knowledge transfer from project to project. But such companies are necessarily focused on the relative short-term needs of a city and the knowledge they bring to each city tends also to be about the “now” and not the future. Academics are different, of course they also work on the “now”, but the very extensive, international disciplinary network, means that they draw on much deeper and broader knowledge; knowledge that can provide the answers to the highly complex issues facing cities today.
By making local universities (and often through them) and international academia a core element of their evolution in response to population growth, climate and economic change; cities are able to accelerate their meeting their own challenges and accelerate the global community in meeting its shared challenges.
This is a powerful argument for the involvement of academics in smart city projects – as integrated members of local and international teams. One can envisage that international teams of world-leading biologists, computer scientists, engineers, social scientists, economists, etc., might be created by working closely with international companies and cities to accelerate the development of an understanding of cities as ecosystems, and on this basis, to develop internationally implementable solutions.
However, this vision would not, I think, be ultimately successful. Why? Because it ignores the fact that universities, and therefore the academics they employ, form a major part of the economies and societies of many cities. In many cities, the local universities, particularly those associated with major hospitals are a city’s major employer, with their employees and students representing a large and important component of the city’s population.
Universities as local employers and as corporate citizens are in a unique position to contribute to realizing a city’s vision to be smart, sustainable and successful. The combination of assets – buildings, roads, parks, etc. – with trained researchers and with their students, a ready and willing population of research ‘subjects’ and participants makes them an asset that a city and its partners can utilize to research, develop, demonstrate and evaluate new approaches to managing the city, engaging with its citizens and planning for a just, sustainable and successful future.