Sandra Baer, Smart Cities Council

Social media is a mobilising force

To Sandra Baer, understanding the needs of cities and their inhabitants is the first step towards a smart city. The Senior Director for Alliances at the Smart Cities Council (SCC) tells us how the concept is being approached in the US, and the ways in which players, from political leaders to social media networks, can make a difference.

People and technology are two key elements in a smart city. Which one is the most important?
First, and above all, a smart city is about people. Some of the SCC's partners are among the world's leading tech companies, and yet they still understand that before bringing in the technology, you need to get citizens involved, and reach out to mayors and city leaders before implementing it. A city whose leadership is not even aware of what the priorities are won't be buying anything, or investing in technology. It's important to realise what to do first and how to get started.

Is that what makes a good leader?

Yes, we believe that city leaders should possess three qualities. First, they need to have a vision - and really put together an action plan for 2030. They also need to be open to innovation, and not resist progress. Thirdly, they need to find the cash for investments, or have it already available (ideally). These points - to have a vision and be open to innovation - are what keeps the ball rolling and also gets citizens involved.

What role should the private sector play in a smart city?
The private sector can transform a city through technology, through strategy. It is highly capable and has a lot of intelligent people in it. Some cities have a structure of elected officials and appointed executives who might not be that smart on data, transport or communications. That's not their job, they were elected to run the city. The fact that the mayor doesn't have these skills can mean it's up to the private sector. In the field of smart cities, we see a lot of non-profit organisations working exclusively with government, and that's a huge mistake.


The SCC has over 75 partners, between development banks, non-profits, academic institutions, etc. All these, plus the private sector, when combined with the public sector, become a strong force. Governments which only work with government are missing out on all the knowledge in the private sector, and in my opinion, that's a big mistake. But the private sector also takes some blame, because if company ''X" wants to sell their product to mayor "Y", that will be their focus. Can the company think holistically for the city's benefit? Or do they just want to sell a product?  

Is the North American approach to smart cities different to Europe's?

Yes, but it's different all around the world. If we looked at Dubai in 1993, there was practically just sand there. When we go there today, the speed of action, the quality of strategy, and the caliber of talent there are quite surprising, yet it's so different from an American or European city, which have a lot of history, ageing infrastructures, traffic problems, communication systems which are probably outdated. There's a lot of leapfrogging which a city like Dubai can do and which a North American city can't. The 2008 recession had a hard impact on US city development. They were knocked down by the crisis, but now they're back and there are ways to make them understand that this innovation can help them save money, become more efficient, and even generate revenue in some cases.

In Europe, we hear a lot about climate change, and the need for greater resilience. Is this a concern in the US?
Yes, because 90% of the world's cities are coastal. To all of us, and the US in particular, there's a huge concern about how climate affects water, energy, transport. We're worried about how to deal with climate change and be more resilient. More than sustainability, the key word here is resilience. Climate change is happening all over the world, and in the US we're actively involved in helping cities understand what they can do to prevent disasters, and when there are hurricanes, floods or droughts, how to deal with those events in a resilient way.

Although it's a crucial tool, technology also raises some concerns. Should its use be restricted?

That's a good question. The reality is that cities are made up of people, and if technology crosses a limit, citizens will rise up and make an issue of it. There's all kinds of technology to help us do things which may or may not be smart. But we don't have to regulate it per se, the market will do it.

What's the role of social media networks?

Social media is a mobilising force. Look at what happened in the Arab Spring, or in the Ukraine, and a bit all over the world, actually. It's kind of state-of-the-art, where more and more people have a say in how they live, work, etc. I think social networks will continue to be extremely powerful, we just need to find new ways to do it.