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What Does 'Smart' Mean for a City?

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By Sunand Prasad

The Smart City idea attracts hype and scepticism in dynamic balance; but it's a boring kind of balance. As something of a bystander until now and as an architect and citizen, I will attempt here to sieve out the essence of smart.

'Smart City' is a proxy term, a trope, a paradigm that sums up a huge range of desirables of many kinds. As with the ideas of a sustainability city, it is hard to disagree with the propositions that cities should be smart. Someone once described sustainability as the slipperiest piece of soap in the shower. But at least we know what it is in practice, even if not in theory.

'Smart' is even more slippery. For some it is all about digitally connected infrastructure that can help operate urban systems with unprecedented efficiency and collect data so rich that citizens get what they need even before they know they need it. In contrast to these technologically based approaches some stress the social and community dimension, governance and empowerment; and others focus on jobs, competitiveness and growth catalyzed through programmes to create a more skilled population.

All these are in themselves powerful measures but if we see smart as a package of measures we miss the point. Urban history is full of brilliant advances of these kinds without the word smart being attached. Take for example the following from one part of India as it may help sidestep Western / post-industrial assumptions and presumptions. Every part of the world will have its equivalents.

  • The city of Jaisalmer founded in the 12th Century lies in the middle of the Thar desert and thrived because of its position on the the silk route in a place where rich trade could be carried out within defendable walls. Despite its remoteness and only a few days rain every year Jaisalmeri citizens seemed to have lived well enough and some rather opulently, relying on a technologically advanced rainwater collection and distribution system (not to mention high tolerance of heat). A city of around 40,000 was sustained for several centuries and now has around 80,000 people. It developed its own sophisticated culture, information systems and modes of behaviour somewhat reminiscent of what Richard Sennet described in the 'Fall of Public Man'. Some are based for example on song and music: you could tell by the music coming out if a house about significant life events. If there was a death in the family the song would tell the listener which relation had died so they could make the appropriate gesture.
  • Jaipur, the state capital 575 km away in a more fertile part of Rajasthan, was built in the early 18th century as a city planned on a combination of canonic and modern principles on a grid plan, complete with a sophisticated drainage infrastructure able to deal with surges. Later in the 19th century it had a rail-based sewage collection system. Its public spaces elegantly accommodate everyday life and trade as well as huge festivals when the streets turn into theatres.

Down at village and town level these states like many other parts of India had devolved government.

Under the apparent chaos of modern India there thrive remarkable self-organised and self-organizing economies and logistical systems like the celebrated Mumbai dabbawalas who distribute 200,000 lunches every day with highly rated punctuality and precision.

We can all think of our favourite clever ideas. Here in London the work of the 19th century engineering genius Joseph Bazalgette, who created a sewerage system that put an end of cholera, started the Thames clean-up and anticipated the future scale of demand. Then there's the creation of the London Underground by several companies in the 1860s. If there had been a cost benefit analysis at the time the Underground would never have got built.

Digital networks that join up traffic lights, give early warnings, manage security and empty bins are the 'third industrial revolution' versions of such advances. Therefore, to have real meaning 'Smart' has to go beyond clever ideas whether technological, social, political or economic. So, where might that be?

Smart is joining up or integrating packages of economic / social / technological measures so they work together. For example planning development, or writing development guidance, that fully takes into account infrastructure development and its consequences - such as the impact of increased property values through new transport links and services.

Smart is selecting and scaling programmes appropriate to each city and town. One thing that has emerged over the last decade, and especially through the recession, is just how different cities and their performance are. Centre for Cities data on the comparative economic performance of cities and the factors behind it puts paid to the idea that through policy interventions you can make all cities converge in terms of job creation and growth. But that is no reason why some cities, supposed stagnant in terms of econometrics cannot be great places to live - zero growth in action, that would be smart. The recognition of these differences also shows the limits of centralized and top down solutions.

Smart is joining together with other cities so that the learning spreads, Some organizations fear losing competitive advantage through knowledge sharing; but the era of hoarding intellectual property is surely over. Any implementable idea is going to be out in the open anyway through the internet - so better to leapfrog all that secrecy and go for open sharing of knowledge with a determination to add to it constantly.

Smart is thinking the long term even when acting short term. This is at present perhaps the hardest part of smart. All the arguments made by organizations like the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment for considering long term value in designing and constructing buildings, are falling on deaf ears in an era where immediate costs have become the key criterion for public sector contract award.

Admittedly, planning for the long term tends to generate more unintended consequences than intended ones. Smart means knowing what to plan for and what to leave alone. For example we have to plan for climate change, both mitigation and adaptation, by setting targets and converting them to immediate action. But a large programme of installing immature technologies in buildings in an effort to make them zero carbon now is likely to be a waste of money. Smart would be to start changing people's and corporate behaviour, and use public money, and purchasing power, to kick start a market in energy efficiency retrofit, which will also provide jobs. A market of the scale that is needed will generate innovations and mature technologies to take us to the next step.

Finally smart is to recognise what a huge difference the quality of the cities buildings and spaces makes to people's lives. Everyone recognises that the quality of opportunities and services is critical to people's happiness but poor attention is given to their setting. These settings can greatly enhance the quality of opportunities and services that a city offers. Top down diktats regarding the design quality of public buildings can only go so far. In the long term we as citizens have to become more critical and through that more empowered. Education from primary school onwards has a big role to play in increasing people's awareness of the visible and invisible structures that surround them so that as digital networks and open data becomes ubiquitous we are smart enough to use it.

Sunand Prasad is Senior Partner of architectural practice Penoyre & Prasad LLP and former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (2007 - 2009).

He spoke at Intelligence Squared's "Smarter Cities" event last week in London, which was part of the 'Switched On' series of live talks and debates with Shell. Click here to watch the video.