Few policy areas seem to grab the imagination of the modern global citizen than the notion of a 'smart' city. Faced with a Christmas season invariably filled with train cancellations, holiday-sapping traffic jams and high streets packed full of frantic shoppers it is not hard to see the appeal of cities planned and managed by the latest technological innovations and data analytics. With two thirds of the world's population set to inhabit cities by 2045, it is also no wonder that city administrators from Bristol and Singapore through to Rio de Janeiro and Modderfontain are looking to the technologists to shape the urban landscape. In India, the government has committed to developing 100 smart cities across the nation.
While surveying some of the world's leading smart city thinkers for a new report Smarter Cities, Simpler Cities, published by ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants), there was one crucial theme which emerged: it is the people, not just the technology, which makes a city 'smart.' Certainly, there are pioneering and hugely exciting things happening with regards to Big Data and the Internet of Things, whether applied in new custom-built cities such as South Korea's Songdo (designed with the insights of IBM) or 'retro-fitted' developed cities such as Barcelona and Amsterdam. Real-time monitoring and analytics will mean, however, that cities will be responding to the real needs and behaviours of its citizens like never before.
(Credit: Author's own)
Yet where we are likely to see the biggest innovations will be bringing sustainable and efficient practices to the traditional functions of a city: waste management, energy supply, transport infrastructure. As such, we are not likely to see the replacement of planners and city administrators by technology any time soon: instead, they are likely to play an ever more crucial role in using data insights and applying intelligent systems to help cities flourish even, in many cases, as their populations continue to soar to unprecedented levels. This means that any discussion of the city of the future has to move beyond the technology itself to a serious discussion about the evolution of skills and functions required by those who will build and maintain the cities of tomorrow.
That discussion goes beyond architects, engineers and policy-makers: a large number of those will be accountants and finance professionals. This should come as no surprise: from the counting houses of Ancient Rome and the Venetian city state of Luca Pacioli - 'the father of accounting' - the development of the modern city has always been closely aligned to financial and commercial innovation. More recently, the spectre of bankruptcy which has haunted the likes of Detroit and New York is a reminder that even the most mighty metropolis relies on strong governance, strategic planning and an analytical approach to building future resilience.
One of the key findings of our research has been that no smart city is necessarily alike: their development represents a journey, based around citizens' needs and available resources rather than fixed end-point. Yet it is a process which is happening extremely quickly: one estimate cited in the report is that the number of smart cities worldwide will triple to 88 by 2025.
Across Asia and Africa, the development of the smart city is not a utopian ideal but a social necessity: rapid urbanisation is creating unique pressures on local economies, environmental impacts and the challenges of ageing populations. India alone expects to add about 300 million city dwellers by 2045. So as new centres of urbanisation emerge around the world - smart cities offer a ray a hope to ensure that the journey of many of these new urban centres can benefit from a planned, smart approach that safeguards living conditions for future generations.
'What is a city but its people?' is the famous question in Shakespeare's Coriolanus. In the smart city era, that question is ever more integral. Whether it is the Indian government pursuing its Smart Cities Mission, or the UK's plan to create a Northern Powerhouse to regenerate post-industrial cities, policy-makers worldwide need to appreciate the importance of investing in professional skills and training which will enable its workforce to adapt and thrive in the digital era. If nothing else, the smart city of the future will need smart leaders.