What are Smart Cities?

‘A woman drives to the outskirts of the city and steps directly on to a train; her electric car then drives itself off to park and recharge. A man has a heart attack in the street; the emergency services send a drone equipped with a defibrillator to arrive crucial minutes before an ambulance can. A family of flying maintenance robots lives atop an apartment block – able to autonomously repair cracks or leaks and clear leaves from the gutters’.

This is the picture that  Steven Poole paints of future smart city in his 2014 critique on the smart city for the Guardian.

The smart city concept is one of the most prominent terms in recent urban planning, nevertheless it is ill defined and there is no agreed on definition. This is also not an attempted to present such a definition but rather show the variety of meanings the concept has and what are the aspects of smart cities, which are relevant for education in the research group.

We identify three streams of smart city thinking.

  1. Smart cities planned at once and built from a tabula rasa situation
  2. Smart cities that are using networked ICT technologies to collect as much data about the city, its citizens and the processes in the city in order to optimise the management of the city and thereby improve economic and political efficiency
  3. Cities that understand and integrate ICT solution and other technologies as continuous form of urban development towards a more sustainable urban future.

The most prominent examples of the first are Masdar City (Abu Dhabi) designed by Foster and Partners and Songdo (South Korea) by Gale International in cooperation with POSCO E&C. Both are absolutely interesting cases, as the show on the one hand the possibilities how different smart technologies can be built into and actually become the backbone of city development. On the other hand, these cities show, what is common also to other(old) cities, which label themselves as smart cities: very often smart city development is driven by a shift from a managerial to an entrepreneurial form of governances. The flashy images show clearly that the smart city initiatives target a specific, group of inhabitants as well as businesses:, young, well educated, affluent, creative and technology driving inhabitants and businesses. Therefore there is the risk, that the smart/creative city can become not only more economically polarized, but also socially, culturally and spatially divided by the growing contrast between incoming knowledge and creative workers, and the unskilled and IT illiterate sections of the local poorer population (Hollands, 2008).

These “tabula rasa” smart cities have in common with the second type of smart cities that big technology, engineering and consulting companies, play a crucial role in the smart city development. The most well know and iconic example is Rio de Janeiro’s operations centre, which was developed by IBM. Many other cities followed this example, supported by big global player like Siemens, Cisco, Samsung and others. In these cases the main aim is to have as much real time information on the city as possible, in order to empower the city administration to respond quick and well informed, to manifold tasks. The Operations Centre serves as the nerve centre for the city, applying analytical models developed by IBM to more effectively predict and coordinate reaction to emergency incidents (http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/35945.wss), which is for sure a big advantage for city management. But with ubiquitous wireless broadband and the embedding of computerised sensors into the urban fabric and every house and the development of so-called “internet of things” as well as the already ubiquitous CCTV, the question is whether the city develops into an optimised panopticon rather than a divers vibrant environment , where different people, cultures and ideas meet.

And then there are the third type of smart cities, which are for sure the majority, which see the smart city in a broader way, rather following Nicos Komninos’ (2006) intelligent city idea, which he defines as ‘…territories with high capacity for learning and innovation, which is built-in the creativity of their population, their institutions of knowledge creation, and their digital infrastructure for communication and knowledge management’. In contrast to the two earlier mentioned types of smart cities ,which were driven by big ICT companies, the last type got its major boost by the Covenant of Mayors in 2008(CM)(Cocchia, 2014), which is a self-started initiatives of European cities. The ideas of the CM included into the smart city concept questions of increased energy efficiency and asked to foster renewable energy. Those ideas where further developed by the Europe 2020 strategy and include aspects of investing in education, research and innovation developing a low carbon economy and has a strong focus job creation and poverty reduction.

We see our research, as well as potential graduation thesis of students, in the tradition of the last presented type of smart cities. For us, following the European-smart-cities project, a smart city has at least 6 distinct aspects: Smart economy, smart mobility, smart governance smart environment, smart living and smart people. See (Vanolo, 2013) and the figure below for a brief description of the different aspects. The European smart cities project also provides a ranking of European smart cities.

What the above shows is that the technical transformation goes hand in hand with societal transformations and changes and challenges. The integration of networked ICT technologies offer a huge potential to change our cities. Whether this change is also an improvement depends on which values and ethical standards we apply to their implementation There is a lot of potential for conflict! Therefore it is crucial to understand the city and metropolitan solutions not from a pure technological and economic standpoint, but always in a wider framework of society and environment. Questions like who profits from specific solutions, who loose, where do the resources to implement the solutions come from? Who decides, which solutions are implemented are only a few questions, which are at least equally important as finding technical solutions.

The following question guide our research as well as student projects

How to design, (within) a smart city?

What are the tools and methods for design and implementation of smart city aspects?

How to use smart technologies to further  integrate design and research on environmental aspects and spatial design in order to improve the sustainability of urbanised environments?


Cocchia, A. (2014). Smart City. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-06160-3

Hollands, R. G. (2008). Will the real smart city please stand up? City, 12(3), 303–320. http://doi.org/10.1080/13604810802479126

Nicos Komninos. (2006). Intelligent Cities: Innovation, Knowledge Systems, and Digital Spaces. New York. Retrieved from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=psQq2PJp07gC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=komninos+intelligent+city&ots=6aLAVE2pAm&sig=i7py5dmpWR5tQeMTHk7kKo89y5c#v=onepage&q=komninos intelligent city&f=false

Vanolo,  a. (2013). Smartmentality: The Smart City as Disciplinary Strategy. Urban Studies. http://doi.org/10.1177/0042098013494427