Navigant Research Blog

The Smart City – From Vision to Reality

Eric Woods — January 9, 2012

The news that the 2012 TED Prize has been awarded for the first time to an idea, The City 2.0, is further evidence of the importance of cities in addressing global issues of sustainability, economic development and technology innovation.  The TED Prize is linked to the acclaimed TED conferences and video series promoting ground-breaking technical, scientific and cultural ideas.  According to the prize director, the idea behind the award is to challenge the TED Community “to embrace radical collaboration on one of the most pressing issues we face: how to build sustainable, vibrant, working cities.”

The TED announcement is just one of series of new studies, events and initiatives all focused on taking sustainable urban development programs to the next level.  Eric Bloom has already covered the recent IBM-sponsored smart city gathering in Rio de Janeiro.  He highlighted the innovative projects in Rio that are addressing systemic challenges and preparing the city for the arrival of the World Cup and the Olympic games.  The UN has provided another useful example of how major events can propel new thinking about city design and development.  It has pulled together lessons for sustainable cities drawn from the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, which had  the theme of Better City, Better Life.  The Shanghai Manual, A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development, provides a 300 page overview of the opportunities for cities to take new approach to issues such as economic development, transport, building, waste management and the use of ICT.  The manual is part of the UN’s attempt to educate and train city authorities around the world on how they can make their cities a positive force for economic development and environmental sustainability.

The core themes of the UN study were also the common topics of conversation at the Intelligent City Expo, which I attended in November.  Over three days in Hamburg – European Green Capital 2011 – city managers and political leaders, not-for-profit organizations and suppliers debated the way forward for cities.  There was general agreement that a smart city is one that combines a commitment to sustainability with continued economic and social development supported by the innovative use of technology.  Much of the discussion focused on the practical challenges of developing the political leadership, citizen engagement, and new operating models that enable the transformation to a smart city.

One of the biggest challenges is how to provide the financial underpinning for that transformation.  In fact, the first question asked at the conference to the opening panel was “Who pays?”  I chaired the panel that addressed this topic on the second day of the conference, comprising representatives from European investment bodies, including the European Investment Bank, and also from the private equity sector.  In Europe at least, investment funds are available for trials and pilots, but taking projects to large-scale deployment is still uncharted territory in most cases.  It’s also clear that the private sector is eager to find new ways to work with city authorities but they need to find the right service and right business models.

One area of growing interest is the value of information and data assets in helping to reimagine the way the city operates.  This issue has been taken up by The Climate Group, in a new report on smart city economics, Information Marketplaces: the New Economics of CitiesThe report, produced with the help of Accenture, Arup and the University of Nottingham, examines the potential for cities to use untapped data and information assets to improve decision making, make better use of city infrastructure and develop new forms of  cooperation with the private sector and with citizens.  It’s a useful contribution to the growing debate as to how city data and information assets can provide a technical and financial basis for smart city transformation.   The challenge for cities is to understand what data they should make available, in what form and above all what partnerships they need to forge to ensure that that hidden value is realized.

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