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So what exactly is a ‘smart city’?

The terms ‘smart city,’ ‘intelligent community’ and ‘smart community,’ have been around and broadly used since the turn of the century. All have had plenty of different definitions over the years.

The outcomes of these smart city initiatives have been equally diverse: a mixed record of success can be associated thus far with the term ‘smart city,’ with as many good as not-so-good practices to learn from. And, while many smart community initiatives have resulted in a deluge of lessons indeed, some of the biggest digital bangs have come without warning or plan, yet have affected communities more profoundly than many planned initiatives.

The notion of the ‘Smart City’ has always been a vague one. Both words represent a problem: ‘smart’ remains hard to define, and objections to the term tend to grow if one is to contemplate what exactly constitutes the opposite of being ‘smart’. It is nearly impossible to tie the term to KPIs and measurable goals, while any attempt to frame the term will be eroded quickly over time: what is considered ‘smart’ today may not be that smart any longer tomorrow.

The second word, ´city´, limits the scope substantially. There is no reason why a digitalisation strategy that typically may apply to a city would not apply to a smaller town, a region, a campus or, in fact, and entire country. A large city may have different needs from a smaller town, perhaps – but a smaller town will certainly have its own requirements and benefits associated with a tailored digitalisation strategy. To disregard the latter, to frame community digitalisation as applying merely to cities, means to condone and aggregate modern digital divides.

At the heart of many definitions and endeavours has always been a technology proposition, for better or for worse. In the early 2000s, discussions, projects, pilots and thought-leadership focused on infrastructure: broadband, high end connectivity and how that would impact (and change) the way we think of healthcare, mobility, retail or education. The second chapter was led by large technology companies and focused on solutions and solutions architectures, some of them closed and proprietary. The third chapter has focused on data: big data, analytics, viewing the future of smart cities as a market of city data.


But no matter how important these technology propositions have been – and they do represent the engine of the smart city effort – a successful community digitalisation strategy is rarely helped by having technology at the beginning and the end of an equation, typically with a societal challenge thrown in the middle of it.

A true ‘smart’ community is a community that commences with its citizens – the community´s actual needs, challenges and comparative advantages – and that is able to address these by means of comprehensive innovation and digitalisation strategies, harvesting the full promise of what digitalisation affords.

But do note: the prerequisite to that turning into a reality is a proper understanding of what digitalisation constitutes. Digitalisation is not restricted to a mere application of digital technologies. It encompasses the tools, technologies, and organisational, cultural and economic paradigms that come on the back of digital technologies – think platform economics as an economic example. Or take transparency and collaboration as important components to a culture of digitalisation. A true smart community embraces such notions at its core.

Last, a smart community is keenly aware of the fact that digitalisation produces its own negatives. The loss of jobs due to automation, fresh digital divides or society-wide concerns over privacy lost: they are mere examples of the issues born out of digitalisation. A true ‘smart community’ is a community that can address and mitigate such negatives effectively. Because, in the end, how smart should we appraise a community to be if it has thousands of angry and unemployed people marching its streets, protesting against the fundamentals that was to earn the community the label ‘smart’ in the first place?

In my book, A New Digital Deal, a framework of 20 building blocks has been proposed that helps communities arrive at a ‘smart’ digitalisation strategy effectively. The book also provides a definition of what constitutes a “smart community”, because without an up to date definition, strategies may prove pointless. Here it is:

A smart community is a community that leverages digital organisational principles, tools and innovations to help the community evolve to become more sustainable, inclusive, successful and creative, and to ultimately benefit the individual citizen.

A smart community leverages digitalisation to positively amplify and augment the existing social dynamism of the community in question.

A smart community is able to positively address societal divides by digital means, and is able to mitigate the divisive impact digital change may impose on a community.

A smart community is a community in which digitalisation is not limited to facilitating a series of – often very impactful – efficiencies. Instead, a smart community leverages such technologies in constructs that represent value to humanity and to human beings individually.

In other words, a smart community aims to leverage digitalisation to propel individual growth and collective well-being.  

Bas Boorsma is author of, “A New Digital Deal – Beyond Smart Cities. How to Best Leverage Digitalisation for the Benefit of our Communities”. The book is now out and available on Amazon.
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