What exactly is a smart city? Ask anyone who has worked on these urban development projects and they’ll tell you that the definition is constantly changing. We asked Gemma Ginty, Urban Futures Lead at Future Cities Catapult, this and more in a conversation about the future of urban development and how cities can improve the lives of their citizens.

How did you get introduced to the concept of smart cities?

The pursuit of a smart city is to create a ‘better city,’ but it’s worth remembering that each generation of urban visionaries has tried to address this goal in different ways. We’ve seen many terms come and go in the process, ranging from digital city, virtual city, information city to intelligent city; the smart city is part of an evolution to re- configure and programme the city.

The smart city term was coined by technology platform companies wishing to expand their market with city clients. Personally, I was introduced to the concept through my work as an architect and service designer. System integration is seen as the nirvana of a connected city experience, and the smart city offered this type approach. It requires new types of multi-disciplinary teams to addressed the complex ‘wicked problems’ in cities. Smart cities have also become more recognised with the proliferation of smartphones, applying data as a building material and taking advantage of the collective desire to use cities in more empowering ways.

What do you think citizens expect from their cities?

There is a difference between what citizens should expect and what they actually expect. Historically, the channels of communication to citizens have been tenuous and superficial, with the ballot box acting as the main intermediary. But citizens are travelling more and comparing experiences, and they are asking the question, ‘Why can’t my city feel more seamless?’ Bottom-up innovation is enabling the citizen voice to be heard, but also providing tools for them to take actions.

Citizens expect dependability, safety, and healthy places to work and live. More importantly, they want to live in a dynamic and engaging place. Overall, citizens expect the simple transactions of the city to work well. There needs to be a focus on choice, flexibility, and cost, and consideration needs to be given to the various demographics: families, elderly, disabled, commuters and tourist. Each group accesses the city in very different ways, and this needs to be the designers’ target outcome, rather than a by-product of a static city service.

What are some of your favourite examples of how brands are partnering with cities to address social issues?

Companies are working with cities on a variety of levels in terms of scale and impact. The larger players are endeavouring to provide the platforms and software to digitally enable cities. It’s important that these relationships are authentic and work in the cities’ best interests. Some cities have been careful to avoid vendor lock-in, which would limit their abilities to engage multiple players and create a city as an ‘open platform’.

On a smaller scale, there are some businesses focused on providing shared mobility service in certain cities, like bike sharing programs. Brands are also participating in Living Lab programmes, which are effective ways to invest in existing community initiatives. Often times, brands are unaware of how they can work with cities and what’s required to get things done on the ground.

An important point to address is competing agendas. All actors involved will have their own plans, and an independent mediator is required to identify useful intersections. The Future Cities Catapult plays this role to develop projects with a variety of partners and agendas.

What’s next for the future of smart cities?

The shape of the cities will not change dramatically in the future, but they will increasingly speak to us on a more individual level. We’ve already seen a move to a sharing economy with a focus on access rather than ownership of assets. The future of smart cities will be about how well we connect people, places and things to create delightful and useful experiences for all user groups of the city.

It’s worth remembering that the smart cities movement is at the foothills of development—further investment and testing is required to ensure that it can deliver against the expectations and promises. Overall, it’s a very exciting time to be developing prosperous and liveable cities.

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