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Two surprising observations on smart cities

We have been studying smart cities and communities for a number of years, and created a think tank with more than 250 thought leaders around the world to grapple with some of the challenges that arise as increased urbanization intersects with the massive digital transformation that is sweeping every aspect of daily lives and activities.

As we began our work, we made two surprising observations. First, we realized that there is no universal definition of what constitutes a “smart” city. The concept has evolved over time, and has a different meaning to different audiences, which can make for incoherent conversations. A decade ago, discussion about smart cities was about automation. It was a term broadly used by the tech industry, but viewed with skepticism by city leaders and residents.

Today, the term smart city has come to mean far more. A smart city modernizes physical, digital and social infrastructure and integrates all essential services for the benefit of its citizens by harnessing advances in sustainable technology to make delivery of those services more efficient, innovative, equitable and exciting.

This brings us to our second observation, which is that all three components of city infrastructure are equally important: physical, digital and social. Yet, social infrastructure appears to lag behind advances in physical and digital infrastructure. We find this puzzling, because without the social component, the rest amounts to technology for technology’s sake. A city may have modern physical infrastructure, and it may have automated processes, but this is not what makes it smart. City leaders are not interested in new technology unless it solves a real problem faced by the city and its inhabitants. In other words, smart cities are about people. A smart city uses advanced technologies in a comprehensive and integrated manner for the benefit of the people who live, work and play in the city.

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