The Smart Cities Debate 2.0: Would the Real Smart City Please Stand Up

Post co-authored by Bohyun Kim, Junior Officer, ICLEI Smart Cities Team

The world has been discussing what a smart city is for so long that many are tired of the question. Maybe there is no universal answer to this question, and maybe we don’t need one. However, this does not mean that the term is irrelevant. While the discussions and debates have continued, cities around the world have been using the term in their own ways, spending time and money to implement projects with the smart cities label on them.

We’ve therefore reached a turning point in the smart cities debate. The key questions are no longer: “what is a Smart City?”, “which wondrous technological trends will revolutionize our cities?”, or “who could fund all the technological solutions and ideas available on the rapidly expanding ‘cities market’?” Like any grand fashion trend inevitably does, the smart cities debate has moved from the idea stage to the implementation stage, and the main question now is a more pragmatic one: “what do we really need, what works, what doesn’t, and why?”

Let’s briefly look at three examples of smart city projects – Vienna, Barcelona and Songdo – and see what we can take from those cases for the “Smart Cities debate 2.0”.

Vienna Smart City Strategy: A Goal-driven Approach

While some cities focus above all on the use of innovative technology, Vienna Smart City prioritizes social inclusion. Launched in 2011, the Smart City Wien framework strategy is directed at a wide range of groups: citizens, enterprises, non-profit institutions, and the public sector. The project aims to improve the city’s performance in three areas: resource preservation, quality of living, and innovation. Driven by these goals, the city has implemented numerous specialized smart city projects in different sectors. “The MA48 Waste App” is one good example of Vienna’s approach to smartness: the app provides information regarding waste disposal, including the next collection dates, the nearest waste disposal sites, and updates to the system. Vienna uses the app to motivate citizens to participate in waste separation. This is characteristic of its smart city project, which focuses not so much on new technology but on the use of existing technologies to change processes and mindsets.

Barcelona Smart City Project: Combining Old and New Projects for a Self-sufficient City


Website of Barcelona Smart City.

Barcelona Smart City is based on a transformative vision for a self-sufficient city. As with Vienna’s smart city, citizens’ well-being and quality of life lie at the core of this project, with an emphasis on tapping potential through sustainable development and the green economy. At the same time, technology and innovation help to realize this vision, enabling the city to connect projects and to provide information to citizens. Projects of this kind include the new telecommunication network, the Barcelona Sensors Platform, and the Open Data system. The smart city strategy comprises 122 individual projects, which are classified into 22 programs, covering areas of city management including lighting, water and waste management, energy, transportation, and zero-emissions mobility. Other projects in Barcelona’s Smart City highlight how not all smart city projects need to be new, innovative, and high-tech. For example, Barcelona views its “Bicing” shared bicycle program, launched in 2007, as one of its smart city projects. The city has recently improved the quality of bicycles for citizens’ safety, and has made them more visible and simple to use.

Songdo Smart City Project: A Green City

The Songdo Smart City project has become well known for its artificial urban space and extravagant use of new technologies. Its buildings are equipped with automatic climate control and water, waste, and electricity systems with electronic sensors to enable the city’s brain to track and respond to the movement of residents. The population in Songdo is rapidly increasing, with more than 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, and the rate of unsold apartments in the area has decreased almost 80 percent since 2014.

However, people are not moving for the technology; two other reasons explain the immigration. First, Songdo offers its inhabitants a greener daily life, particularly in comparison to the Seoul area. Since its conception, the city was designed not only as a hub for futuristic technologies and international business but as a green city. With 40 percent of the city given to park space, every resident can walk and bike to work in the district. Secondly, Songdo invites foreign education institutions as well as prestigious global universities to the area, appealing to Korean parents, who value rigorous higher education. In spite of the criticisms it faces, Songdo can therefore be a valid example of a Smart City.

What Works: Value-driven City Planning

Comparing the three Smart City cases above reveals important lessons for the future of the smart cities debate. In all three cases, traditional concepts of sustainable urban development such as resource management, livability, mobility, and environmental protection remain at the core of the projects. The use of technology in and of itself is not important; it is valuable only as a tool that allows cities to achieve the overarching goals of making livable, sustainable, and low-carbon urban areas. Equally, “smart cities” initiatives work as a catalyst for urban development rather than providing a direction or strategy for it.

Lastly, cities need to be aware that the smart cities debate does not offer any new ideological guidance for what a city should do. Instead, it offers cities a dynamic environment for rethinking the approaches and methodologies to foster sustainable urban development. It is cities themselves who will continue to decide on the values that are appropriate to their sustainable development path.

This discussion will be the core of the ICLEI Smart CITIES 2.0 conference at Metropolitan Solutions 2016, 1-2 June, Berlin. We warmly invite representatives of local and subnational governments, along with representatives of businesses with sustainability solutions, to join us at this inaugural conference.