2015-09-17

Boyd Cohen

Real smart cities include citizen involvement

A specialist on urban and climate strategy, Boyd Cohen is one of the leading American thinkers on the topic of smart cities.


How do you define a smart city?

There is no universally agreed upon definition of smart cities. Some people choose to focus on the technology side as the defining aspect of smart cities and some take a broader perspective. I take a broader perspective and believe that a smart city is innovative in everything it does including: embracing procurement of innovation and supporting the growth of local innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems, in its approach to reducing its environmental footprint, in its engagement of citizens as co-creators of solutions, in its interdisciplinary approach to city government and in its use of technologies to facilitate efficiency in resource consumption. It is also a city that works to reduce social inequalities in innovative ways and above all else, is focused on continuous and disruptive innovation in an effort to improve quality of life for all.


You have identified three of the main challenges facing cities: overpopulation, climate change and social inequality. Which one is the most urgent?

Depends on your perspective and your location. They are all three very important challenges for cities, and really for the human race. And they are also interconnected,  requiring interdisciplinary solutions.


Is ICT essential to this shift in cities?

Absolutely. ICT is a key part of the smart cities movement. It is important to recognize, however, that for the most part, ICT solutions are tools to achieve a greater outcome for citizens, but the focus should be on the citizen-user.


Are there any boundaries in the use of ICT? If so, what are they?

This of course is an ongoing debate in the smart cities arena regarding how far can you go with ICT. For example the proposed project in Portugal called Plan-IT expects to have approximately 400 sensors per capita. Many people believe this type of initiative is excessive and could lead to issues of privacy and too much “big brother” watching over citizens. Also, an over-reliance on ICT in cities can lead to a failure to be in touch with the people or to reduce social connectedness, which are key components of quality city life. A balance is needed and technology can’t solve everything. Relatedly, of course, for ICT to support the goals of smart cities, the digital divide needs to be addressed so that all citizens have access to technologies, so they can benefit from the advantages technologies offer.


Taking into account your professional experience, how are different parts of the world approaching the smart city concept?

Good question and there are some fundamental differences. I see Asia as trying to lead with technology and also to build greenfield smart cities from the start, like Songdo in South Korea and many similar projects throughout China. Europe has a balanced approach embracing smarter urban planning, smart use of technology and holistic approaches to innovation. In my opinion, European cities are generally the best examples of smart cities which focus on improving quality of life, using technology as supportive tools and support citizen engagement. Also the European Union has been pretty progressive in funding research and development and pilot projects in cities throughout the region. North American cities, in my opinion, are quite behind Europe in smart cities. They generally speaking have much bigger problems with urban sprawl and are less dense, making it more difficult to embrace some of the smart cities solutions. North American culture is also more married to personal vehicle ownership and less supportive of public transit, which I consider a key aspect of smart cities. This is changing in North America but too slowly. South America seems to be taking a lead, in some cities anyway, in bottom-up citizen participation and co-creation. Cities like Buenos Aires, Concepcion and of course Medellin have recognized the value of citizen participation on their journey to smarter cities.


Nowadays, there are cities being built from scratch as smart cities (for example, in India). How can equal access to these cities be ensured?

I have many doubts about the future success of these initiatives. To me, one of the differentiators of smarter cities is the focus on citizen co-creation and participation. Each city is unique in its culture and history and that should influence future decisions. But these greenfield smart cities are frequently master planned without any citizen engagement. “If you build it they will come”. People may come but without citizen involvement in the planning these cities risk becoming sterile places without vibrant social interaction, etc.


On one hand, there is a boom of new cities; on the other there are centuries-old cities. In order to become a smart city, is it easier to start from scratch or to renovate?

True smart cities, in my opinion, embrace citizen engagement as I said earlier. Yet, citizen engagement and co-creation can be a very messy process. It is likely to have more failed experiments and also more conflict. So it may be “easier” to develop a greenfield smart city without citizen engagement, but it might be harder to make it a real living city where many of us would want to live. Innovation, in general, is often a messy process, but that is part of the fun. Some of my favorite smart cities are Barcelona and Vienna, both with centuries old infrastructure. They have both done an amazing job of embracing their heritage while innovating for the future, keeping the quality of life of citizens and tourists at the heart of their initiatives.


Last year, you were in Portugal for the Smart Travel event, which was based on cooperation between small municipalities in order to boost regional development. What do you think of this kind of initiatives?

I think it is a smart move for these communities in Portugal. If done right, these initiatives could improve the quality of life for locals, while improving local economic development through the attraction of smart tourists. Also smaller communities often have a more difficult time understanding what can be done, and financing smart initiatives. So banding together to support regional economic development through a smart approach is a good path forward.


The event also reflected a global tendency: smart tourism. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this trend?
I see almost only advantages if done right. Tourism is big business and tourists increasingly expect smarter destinations with things like easy access to public Wi-Fi, location based services to identify nearby activities to enjoy, quality, accessible and fast public transit and access to the sharing economy such as house sharing and bike/car sharing. Cities and communities that embrace some of these issues, in ways that make sense for them, will become more attractive tourism destinations as well.

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