In conversation with: Alice Charles on smart cities

Alice Charles, head of cities and urban development for the World Economic Forum, tells City Monitor what it means to be a ‘smart city’.

By Jack Hayes

Alice Charles has nearly two decades of experience in both the private and public sectors, working to transform average cities into smarter places to live. Her work as the head of cities and urban development for the World Economic Forum led to her being listed among the Top Futurism Speakers, among other awards.

smart cities
Alice Charles, head of cities & urban development at the World Economic Forum. (Photo courtesy of The Sustainability Speakers Agency)

In this interview, Charles tells City Monitor what it really means to be a ‘smart city’.

What are the key traits of a ‘smart city’? 

‘Smart city’ is not a new term, it’s been around for about 15 years, and it really came from technology companies rather than cities themselves. So, technology companies developed widgets and gadgets they thought they could sell to cities to help them deliver better services for their citizens and create a more efficient city administration. 

I think what we’ve seen over that period was a plethora of pilot projects being rolled out in cities across the world, but around three-quarters of those did not get to scale. So, what we do know is that the invention of ‘smart cities’ was not successful because the widgets and gadgets that companies were looking to sell to cities were not necessarily what the city wanted.

While problems may be similar in cities across the world, context matters. So, you need to understand the local context, the unique context of that particular city, the unique needs of its citizens, and the unique needs of the city administration to come up with technological solutions. 

I guess what has happened in the past few years is that we’ve seen the term ‘smart cities’ die away quite a lot, and instead we have seen the technology industry shift, which I would argue is in the right direction – they need to focus on an outcome-based approach.

Technology is not a silver bullet to fix a city’s problems. So, if a city, for example, wants to be net zero carbon by 2050 – and we saw at Cop26 many cities committing to that – technology solution providers must create technology to help them get there.

That can involve digitalising the electricity grid system, for example, it can mean using smart building technology systems or intelligent building technology systems to watch energy use within a building, and also to check health and wellbeing. Different solutions apply to the outcomes that the city is looking to achieve. 

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What we’re saying within that is each city needs to understand what it is they’re looking to achieve for their citizens and their administration and look at the unique capabilities provided by digital technologies to help them get there. Also, think about the strategic role of data, as it can help you make evidence-based decisions.

I think what we need to see is both the city taking leadership and ownership, and also see the technological sector focus on an outcome-based approach where they’re first asking the city, what do you need for your citizens and administration? And then tailoring the solutions to help with those needs.

What is the biggest challenge in sustainable urbanisation?

When you have something like Cop26, you see a lot of pledges, but no action is taken the very next day, and political leaders often leave it to their successor.

I think that’s a difficulty that we need to try and overcome in cities around the world; we must hold these cities and governments to account year after year, so they act. 

Another thing that I do have to highlight is finance, the availability of finance to actually pay for [sustainable urbanisation]. If I was to talk to the financing community tomorrow, they would say, ‘we have a lack of bankable projects.’ 

What they mean by that is there’s a lack of projects within cities with the risk profile and structure for them to invest in, so they’re not properly prepared. What we often see is that national and city governments lack the ability and the technical expertise to prepare projects in such a way for an investor to actually want to invest in that project.

That’s a big barrier in terms of the climate projects that cities around the world need to implement to help them get to net zero

Even the most frugal city is in deficit because they’ve seen their revenue plummet, their property taxes, their commercial rates, their sales taxes have all plummeted. But at the same time, they have had huge increases in costs related to health or sanitation, or even a reduction in returns and investments. 

So, cities themselves, their budgets are severely impacted, and they have less of their own money to want to invest. National governments are in the same situation, they’ve had to borrow heavily, so the transfers that would normally take place between the national government and city government are going to be constrained for a number of years.

That means they have to increasingly open themselves up to alternative sources of finance, particularly from the private sector, institutional investors, multilateral development banks, development agencies, philanthropy, et cetera. 

And in that context, they are lacking the capacity and technical ability to prepare these projects for those investors. So, that is probably the biggest problem of all the problems that they face in driving this transition.

How are smart cities more accessible for a diverse population? 

I think one of the things that Covid-19 has done is it’s managed to shine a light on some of the inequalities that already existed within our cities. It’s fair to say that many of those challenges were actually chronic challenges that existed before, but we’ve managed to see them to a much greater extent during Covid-19. 

So, in terms of thinking about how you create a city that is more inclusive and more accessible, you need to think, ‘who are the vulnerable groups within my city that potentially could be excluded?’. 

For example, that could be women, that could be people from the LGBTQ+ community, that could be disabled persons, that could be migrants. 

There are people who are basically priced out of the market in urban areas. They’re living very much in the periphery or have a long journey from the city, and they’re spending huge amounts of time commuting long distances. They may have young families, they’re not concentrating on their health, they have high levels of stress. They don’t have access to employment opportunities. 

You also have digital exclusion. And we’ve really seen that from Covid-19, where, for example, education went online, and many children just didn’t have access to the software, or the hardware required for them to access education.

[Read more: In conversation with: Nigel Topping on climate action]

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