Smart Cities: What Are They and Why Should We Care?

Smart Cities: What Are They and Why Should We Care?

Smart cities. It’s a term that gets bandied about often, but few people seem to have a clear understanding of what it means or why we should care about it.

Professor Marcus Foth is one person who definitely does. Marcus is a professor in the field of urban informatics, or more commonly known as Smart Cities, at QUT in Brisbane. Marcus has one of those unique and brilliant minds that sees the big picture and how that’s likely to play out, 10 or 20 or more years down the track. I had the pleasure of being able to tap into Marcus’s thinking on a recent episode of the Spaces podcast, where he explained the concept of Smart Cities, how it’s put into practice, and how it’s evolving.

Here’s how Professor Marcus explains the smart city concept and what it could mean for us.

The Smart City concept

As Marcus would admit, the Smart Cities concept is not an easy one to sum up in a handful of words. In essence, it’s an umbrella term for a whole bunch of different initiatives and projects that a local government might engage in.

“I like to explain it through a quick summary of historical development,” Marcus says.

“We do have now over a decade or so of smart city development. Very early adopters, like the South Korean government had a U City strategy nationally, where they were building U cities. The U stands for ubiquitous, ubiquitous city in the sense of ubiquitous technology. It was another term for smart city. This goes back to maybe 2006, 2007. The very early examples are very techno-centric,” Marcus says.

“It was very much driven by what technology can do and what it enables. I think those examples where not as successful, because they were treating the city as an engineering problem. It was much more about looking at technology as a platform and then the human dimension; the social dimension came in much later.”

The evolution of the Smart City

“The next wave was when local governments became quite interested,” Marcus continues. “It was also about retrofitting technology into existing cities. A lot of that was driven by the tech providers and service providers, and so you then have this second wave of smart cities that were telling local governments, mayors and city administrators to run their city like a corporation, like an enterprise,” he says.

“Once you adopt an enterprise model, then all of a sudden a lot of the technology and the software from the seventies and eighties that these companies have been developing since then becomes relevant because you’re talking about productivity gains and optimisation and how to make things more efficient. And so that is still a very dominant paradigm in the Smart City space, which is about, say traffic is stuck so you’ve got to optimise it. You look at smart parking, you look at the provision of public Wi-Fi, you look at speeding things up,” Marcus explains.

The next wave of Smart City thinking

“Now the next wave, which is where we’re seeing some of the developments happening right now, is a more human-centric Smart City that is actually trying to understand the human dimension of living in cities: of meeting each other, of working, playing, living in cities. And that is a little more complicated, because it is not as clear-cut as a corporate approach to the city,” Marcus says.

“This latest wave of Smart City development is much more in-tune with what humans would like to do, rather than being told you need to run the city more efficiently, and that’s the only premise,” he says.

Marcus takes the concept further. “The Smart City needs a far more sophisticated approach that isn’t just about a list of technology investment. It is actually about having a strategy that is much more holistic, and that looks at all the different city operations at the business level, at the operations level, and, particularly, at the policy and regulatory level.”

As you can imagine this is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the smart cities concept. Hear the full conversation with Professor Marcus Foth here.