Smart City: local but networked, distributed but integrated


The concept smart city pops up frequently in the context of urban development. The concept definitely has a positive flavour, but I have found myself thinking, what does it actually mean?

There is no unique definition for a smart city. The interpretations and definitions used by different interest groups, stakeholders or regions vary. Often one gets an impression that a smart city is the same as a digital city, sometimes its meaning is close to that of a sustainable city.

It is a challenging term, because who would like his contribution to the development not be called smart, i.e. there is no such thing as a dumb city. While most of human activities take place in cities you may see almost anything included within the smart city concept. So, why should we use a special term if it includes everything in a city?

Towards distributed smart solutions

The basis of developing systems has always been to move towards an optimum defined by multiple criteria, often economic aspects being among the core criteria. Traditionally an optimum has been reached by centralized solutions. Economy of scale has been achieved by systems with a distinctive point of control. For example, power grids have been built around large power plants. Public transport systems have been based on somebody deciding the schedules and routes on behalf of others.

Retail shopping has moved to large shopping centres. Even the governance in a society has meant a powerful central administration making decisions on behalf of the citizens.

The development of information and communication technology ICT has enabled search for new kinds of optima. The outcome of implementation processes in various systems is often regarded as ‘smart’.

Concerning energy, for example, distributed local production is feasible up to the extreme that every building may become a power source. However, a system of distributed production is better than the old centralized system only if the energy network is managed properly. The transition to smart grids has only been possible thanks to advanced ICT.

New on-demand service concepts are emerging in public transport, which is still based to large extent to predetermined schedules and routes. Like in the case of energy, if you produce more than you need, you may offer your capacity to be used by others. Without advanced ICT the linking of service providers and users would not be possible.

In retail industry the rapidly growing shopping over internet has created a need to rethink the urban logistics. The role of shopping centres and department stores is undergoing a significant change. At the same time the end delivery to the individual customers is seeking new forms. Increased efficiency and better response to customer needs is possible only by use of advance ICT.

In order to make use of public services you had to go to the city centre or at least to the local centre in the suburb. Due to the changes in relative costs of operations in the societies, the development has unfortunately meant that the distances to the service points have gradually increased. Thanks to ICT, you are more and more able to use the services at your home or even when travelling. The savings for the service provider are evident.

ICT also enables citizens to participate in decision making much more than before. While tools exist to enable receiving of information, it is much more difficult for the authorities to keep their work behind closed doors. Citizens are now able to interact with both with the officials and with the elected representatives more than ever before. Despite of the challenge of digital divide, the development of ICT has altogether meant a huge increase in the power of citizens.

Act local, be networked

All the examples above have meant that the meaning of geographical location has changed. You can act locally but at the same time use resources in places you do not even know. Administrative borders can no more be at the same to optimal borders for operations. Without integrating the resources and operations the world with distributed resources would be like the societies centuries ago – and nobody wants that.

In the old systems, data was gathered into a central location, where it was then, often after a significant delay, analyzed. The conclusions drawn were then transmitted back along the chain as instructions. In the current distributed systems data can be gathered and analyzed anywhere. This allows a much larger set of input data and much wider resources for assessment and conclusions. The central decision maker is not always needed at all. Open data – just make the data available and somebody will for his own interest analyse it – is essential in this process.

The essence of being smart in the modern society is in acting locally but being networked outside of your own geographical location. The technological systems can only be managed if they are properly integrated. ICT is the enabler which, when properly used for networking and integration, provides social, environmental, and economic benefits for all.

Cities all over the world see this as an opportunity towards better quality of life. Therefore, the smart city agendas will have a central place in urban development projects. While those projects are always huge investments, they also provide lucrative business opportunities for technology providers. No wonder that practically all largest technology providers have their own smart city agendas.

Matti Kokkala

Professor, Senior Advisor, Smart Cities

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