What makes a City Smart? Dr Roger Donbavand FRSA

Philipa Duthie - Monday, October 12, 2015

A Challenge

In 2007 a milestone was reached – half of the planet’s population were living in cities. Almost a decade on we are now seeing the rate of growth in our urban centres accelerate, a global ‘mega trend’ that shows no signs of abating. In some parts of the world over 80% of the population now live, work and play in urban centres and as growth continues our cities expand and new cities are born.

Many cities across the globe, in both developed and developing countries have signed up to smart city initiatives. But what makes a city smart? This was a challenge that I became part of through the RSA. Every year nearly 100 Commonwealth leaders are selected to take part in a Challenge that was instituted by the Duke of Edinburgh way back in 1956. The purpose of the challenge is several fold: to help sharpen your leadership skills, but also your cultural intelligence as you work with people from a wide variety of cultures across the Commonwealth. It certainly sharpened mine.

The Challenge started at Oxford University and then moved to London where we were split into working groups to observe different smart initiatives in London. This covered high tech initiatives such as Microsoft pioneering technology which will help blind people navigate a city through smart technology without the aid of a guide dog or brail to more community project involving smart initiatives from top UK Universities to mentor deprived teenagers so that they could actually realise they could get to Oxbridge or Manchester.

A smart city does not have to be all about technology

Technology is an enabler but should not define what a smart city is. A smart city should empower everyone and make everyone feel that are part of that city. We learnt much about this on the second part of the challenge when we visited Ahmedabad in India. Here women leaders in slums are using mobile phone technology to empower slums dwellers to unite in overcoming basic problems of health and safety, while a smarter bus transport system is connecting parts of this congested city more quickly for commuters. The latter might not seem smart if you live in the developed world but it is a game changer in Ahmedabad.

Implementing smart city ideas

The Challenge is not a talking shop and we had to brainstorm ideas that we presented to panel of judges. Some of the ideas we developed were:

- Mobile phone bubs where homeless people in the developing world can come and recharge their phone but also where they can get advice and food. One of the members of the Challenge is hoping to get this off the ground in Kenya.

- The Common-wealth Social Capital (CSC) concept enables an individual, community organisation or business enterprise to earn CSC ‘kudos’ by actively participating in society. It’s a new social economy that addresses the pyramid of needs (physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation) to drive local action in response to local issues. The kudos earned could be translated into real value by reducing tax liability, or reflected on a ‘Social CV’ that would make a student or low-income earner attractive for future employment or higher education.

- For example, a teenager volunteering at a local not-for-profit organisation who doesn’t pay tax, would earn CSC kudos in recognition of their service to the community. The kudos would be added to the teenager’s Social CV, demonstrating a quantifiable positive impact within their community. A future employer or education provider would not only assess the individual based on their skills and qualifications, but importantly on their social value – the more kudos, the higher their social value.

- An online City Mayor’s Manual of Ideas. At present there is not a lot of shared ideas and leaning around smart cities. This manual of ideas would overcome this problem. One of the Indian delegates on the challenge is getting this initiative underway. 

Increasingly if we are all to survive in cities we need to think smartly. Technology is only part of the solution. What we saw in Ahmedabad, India was a determination to be smart whether you lived in slum or suburb. All cities need to get smart if they are to survive into the 21st Century.

Dr Roger Donbavand FRSA, works as a freelance marketing consultant in the Australian not for profit sector.


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