Time to rethink Smart Cities: From Tech Focus to a Happy State

Boyd Cohen e Rob Adams*

The term ‘Smart cities’ feels like a buzz word nowadays. You can fill your calendar with all the events that take place around smart cities across the globe. You can read all day the articles and discussions between smart cities experts and try to figure out what the concept of smart cities actually means and who it benefits. Tech companies communicate about the brilliant solutions they have to make cities even smarter. But didn’t they forget something, something that is important…. the citizen?


We think framing cities as smart or stupid is not only wrong, but narrows the focus to willing to be smart. This results in a tech focus with the citizen as a subject. Cities should evolve around people, not technology. It is time rethink smart cities. We believe cities should be designed around happiness, not technology or efficiency. We believe in co-creation of fun, engaging and happy citizen spaces, one project at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to make the world a happy place again. In times like these we think the world might need this.



Short History of Smart Cities Thinking


We started hearing about smart cities about a decade ago. In an article posted earlier By Boyd in Fastcoexist his analyses led to a reflection about the evolution of smart cities in what he referred to as 3 generations. Smart Cities 1.0 was Technology-driven whereby multinational technology vendors and integrators encouraged cities to improve efficiencies through tech implementations. Smart Cities 2.0 was City-led, technology-enabled, where city officials started taking more of a leadership position in developing a vision for where their city should go in the future and then issue requests for proposals from mostly multinational companies to help implement that vision. Smart Cities 3.0, which can exist with 2.0, is focused on Citizen Co-Creation. In this model, the citizen is at the center of the smart cities movement, taking more initiative in developing a vision for the future of their city as well as co-developing projects to improve conditions.



Happy Citizens


We had an epiphany when we attended the Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona in 2016. There we interviewed dozens of technology experts to learn what they like about their cities not in their professional capacity, but rather as citizens. What we discovered is that happiness, in its many different forms, is what excited even these techies. Combining insights from the 3 generations of smart cities, from our interviews at the Smart City Expo and insights from working in the cities arena for the past several years and leveraging the work on measuring happiness around the world, particularly from the Kingdom of Bhutan´s gross national happiness, we developed the Happy Citizens Hexagon. We merged the qualities of smart city expertise with design thinking, in order to have a framework to change the tech focus of cities to a happy state. The Happy Citizens Hexagon has 6 components and 3 subcomponents for each. Let´s briefly walk through each of them to understand how we can apply design thinking in cities.


Safe & Healthy

In many of our interviews with experts in the smart cities space, topics regarding safety and healthy cities were raised. Police in Coimbatore, city of about 1 million people in southern India, recently launched Operation Zero Crime which aims to raise awareness for crime in the city and to rollout several prevention programs, many through the public and private school system.   While “Zero Crime” could be nearly impossible to achieve, aspiring for it is the only way to happier citizens.  Perhaps here is a good place to mention that there will be many smart cities solutions employed to achieve happy citizens. For example, to achieve zero crime, video surveillance technology can be very useful to both the reduction of crime and the freedom of fear because residents feel safer knowing that deterrents are visibly in place.  Returning to India, Surat in Gujarat, experienced a 27% reduction in crime after implementing a Safe City project in collaboration with Microsoft.


“Mental and physical health” is of course instrumental in happiness of citizens around the world. While this may seem obvious, putting it in a cities model compels the topic to be on the agenda of cities.  Take Care New York 2020 (TCNY 2020) is an initiative to improve the mental and physical health of New York City residents in order “to improve every community’s health, and to make greater strides in groups with the worst health outcomes, so that our city becomes a more equitable place for everyone.”


Walkable & Accessible

Every month it seems we read an article about the connection between traffic congestion and its negative impacts on health and happiness. We should note some scholars have found strong links to walkability and health levels and less relationship between walkability and happiness. However, this is in large part because no one component or subcomponent of the Happy Citizen Hexagon by itself leads to happy cities. It is the combination of all of them that is required.   Strategies such as transit-oriented development and mixed use development requiring new residential buildings to have commercial space on the first floor, have been successful in improving walkability in cities like Vancouver. 


Making “Pedestrian and Cycling” a number one priority of course directly benefits walkability, improves health and can make for a happier city.  I have been inspired by the number of cities around the globe who are reshaping their cities for people, not cars by removing highways and replacing them with pedestrian and cycling paths, parks and the like.  One of the most impressive examples of this strategy was conceived of in Seoul in 2003.  Today, what used to be a double decker elevated highway in the city center has now become an amazing walkable, green space complete with a recovered waterway, pedestrian bridges. Birds and other wildlife have now returned to the city center. 



Clean & Green

In the original smart cities wheel, smart environment was of course one of the subcomponents.  However, when one puts the happy citizen in the center of the model, there is a need to reframe our thinking about the city by thinking about what the citizen cares about. A smaller percentage of citizens are preoccupied with the % of renewable energy or what their city is doing to address climate change, whereas Clean Air was mentioned by several of the experts we mentioned when reflecting on what they value in their cities.  Air contamination in cities is a major problem on a global scale.  The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that 98% of cities in low and middle income countries with populations over 100,000 fail to meet their clean air standards while 56% of similar cities in high-income countries also fail to meet WHO standards. 


Access to “Green Space” and “Outdoor Recreational Areas” were also mentioned several times in our interviews and are also commonly cited in studies of healthy and happy cities.  The WHO recommends 9 square meters of green space per capita.  Vienna has blown that target out of the water offering 120 square meters of green space per capita.  Meanwhile in nearby Munich, residents and visitors have the opportunity to surf a constant river wave all year round. That makes for happy (but perhaps a little cold) citizens!


Shared Prosperity

Inclusive and diverse cities are a must if they want happy citizens. Cities with high levels of segregation of poor from the rich or by ethnicity do not contribute to our happiness. One of our favorite models that is emerging is referred to as ESTEAM education. This stands for Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Arts and Math.  Providing access to these skills to children throughout a city, regardless of their income level, is a great way to increase inclusive opportunities for all.  Inclusive access to local food and energy and good transit-oriented housing are also very important to achieving happy cities.  We did not include employment in this model because we are not convinced jobs as we define them today will be plentiful in the future, and instead, turn our attention more to the local maker movement in other parts of this model.


Socially Connected

Our species is inherently social. Aside from those seeking shared prosperity, another major reason for the mass urban migration is the desire to be part of a community.  Cities are able to support collision density which improves innovation and connectedness.  The overlap with socially connected and the proliferation of peer to peer sharing in cities is quite strong. Peerby, founded in Amsterdam, facilitates neighborhood connections by allowing residents to share household items from neighbors.  Similarly, the Repair Café, also founded in Amsterdam but now operating in 1200 cities around the globe, brings people who like to fix things with people needing something fixed. No money changes hands and the goal is to create more social connections while also reducing environmental waste.  Meetups facilitate this type of interaction as well. In Barcelona for example there are currently 802 meetups accessible to anyone from the community.


Culture & Civic Pride

Consistent with our discussions about shared prosperity and socially connected, cities that embrace local and international cultures are happier too.  Cities that embrace ethnic diversity and customs allow parents to expose their children to other cultures, which enhances their interactions in schools and in the parks.  Having a strong sense of place is also of critical importance to creating happy cities. That is, honoring and celebrating what makes each city unique from its past, present and future.  In Barcelona, Gaudi´s architecture influences the city and of course makes Barcelona different from any other city.  Barcelona has a park, Parc Guell, designed by Gaudi, museums about Gaudi, tours of Gaudi buildings that also attract tourists in droves (perhaps too many?) to Barcelona. 


Staying in Barcelona for one more example, the emergence of Fab Cities is part of this component, where we consider the arts and maker communities. The capability to produce art, music, food, energy and even physical goods (for example in Fab Labs) contributes to a sense of community and also may help reduce dependence on traditional jobs and incomes.  Fab Cities, originally founded in Barcelona, encourages cities to rethink their consumption and production systems. As of today, 16 cities around the globe have joined Barcelona in a commitment to producing at least 50% of everything consumed in their own cities by 2055 if not before.


Finally, continuous democracy should be a part of any happy cities initiative.  Citizens increasingly expect and want to be part of decisions made about their city, and to even be directly involved in reshaping their cities.  The Right to the City movement is about reclaiming cities and urban commons for local residents.  It is no longer enough for a city resident to vote in a mayor election once every 4 years.  Cities need to shift from driving the urban agenda to enabling citizen co-creation.



It is time to reframe the smart cities discussion and to truly put the citizen in the center of what we do, as urban planners, researchers, consultants, technologists and activists. We are hopeful that the Happy Citizens Hexagon can contribute to this conversation.


We have published it as a creative commons license allowing any of you to use it or adapt it for your own needs.  In the coming months we also hope to release a global happy cities index, so stay tuned! If you would like to suggest improvements or have other feedback on the model, please let us know.