Smart Cities? We’ve Moved On. Now It’s Liveable Cities and Smart Communities

Smart Cities? We’ve Moved On. Now It’s Liveable Cities and Smart Communities

56% of the world’s population live in cities, including myself and most of the RMA team.  We all, by and large, want the same things from these cities - decent jobs, affordable housing, safe, clean streets, power and drinkable water, interesting things to see and do, and transport that get us from A to B to C with as little drama as possible.

For the past 20 years Smart Cities have been seen as the future.  A world where technology makes cities easier both to manage and live in. Where officials and our elected representatives have the real-time data they need to improve services - and drive down overheads. A world where everyone knows everything about everything and life runs smoothly.

However, despite these grand - and pretty sensible - ambitions, progress was slow:  by 2019, there were 379 fully deployed smart-city projects in 61 countries. With COVID raging, in 2020, just 16 countries started 34 Smart City projects.

Why you’ll be hearing a lot less about smart cities ‘is a worthwhile read and supports a trend that we spotted a few years back pointing out at a number of “smart” events that the term risked creating a logical and perceptual divide.

The writer correctly points out that in the past “To pursue a smart-city strategy was to be seen as relevant and forward-thinking, whether or not the problems a local government was aiming to solve would necessarily be best served by an expensive new monitoring system or software package”.

But these days the demise of a phrase that once dominated discussions about the future of cities can be attributed to a number of factors:

  • A backlash against the working practices of the huge global tech companies that have been pushing Smart Cities - as well as understandable concerns about privacy and data confidentiality
  • COVID has changed city-life, most likely forever:
  • WFH is now mainstream with companies and their employees seeing the benefits of hybrid working practices. Our city centres may never be as busy again.
  • Decision-makers within local Governments are now shifting their smaller budgets towards economic recovery and pro-actively addressing inequalities as well as speeding up the introduction of climate change measures. Investing in the latest Smart City technology is way down their priority list. 
  • Widespread acceptance that many semi-urban and rural areas have suffered from underinvestment and there is now a prominent divide between the digital have and have-nots, even in developed countries. Many of the early Smart City projects we have seen - traffic management and smart LED lighting are the obvious examples - are equally appropriate outside cities and the thought is that refocusing Government resources into smaller towns and villages could be the catalyst for further development, not least the rollout of fibre.

So, with the Smart City moniker falling out of favour, a few other phrases are now in fashion:  Building Back Better, The Liveable City and The Smart Community in which we’ll see micro projects that are more achievable than the original ambitions of pan-city smartness with start-ups or smaller companies coming up with pinpointed solutions to very distinct, often urgent problems”.

Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that, although technology is no longer seen as the driving force for better city living, it will have a vital role to play.  Likewise the term Smart Cities may have had its day but the ideals remain and will impact upon our lives for years to come.

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