Smart cities are first and foremost about smart governance

by Cédric Genin - Head of Consulting Public Sector | minutes read

When searching for smart cities on the internet, chances are pretty high that you’ll hit upon our Belgian capital, Brussels. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Brussels will probably be the only Belgian city you’ll find in that search.

Brussels is one of 27 cities that made it onto a list of the world’s most documented smart cities. That list was the result of an unprecedented analysis of the emergent global discourse about smart cities. For the purpose of this comprehensive study, a systematic webometric exercise was conducted, measuring hit counts produced by searching for the term ‘smart city’. So in fact, the study lines up the cities that turn up when searching the internet for information about smart cities. The final list of 27 cities with the highest validated hit counts was whittled down from a full list of 5,553 cities with 100,000 inhabitants or more. Next, online texts about the selected cities were collected and analysed.  

Global aspirations.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of cities that made it onto the final list are capital cities or so-called world cities, which already enjoy a proportionally large online presence. Following the logic of the online search process, it was only to be expected that these should score high in terms of ‘smart city’ online hits.  

Nevertheless, according to Professor Simon Joss of the University of Glasgow, who led the study, this strong presence of capital and world cities reveals a close connection between a city’s ambition to become smart and its global presence and positioning. Brussels, having the added bonuses of being the capital of the European Union and home to NATO headquarters, certainly is no exception to that rule. Indeed, if ever a city had a strong global outreach and engagement, it is today’s Brussels. But although other Belgian cities – such as Ghent and Antwerp – may be stronger smart cities, their efforts often remain less publicized. 

Transformative governance.

Another key insight from the research, which focused in particular on the governance aspects of smart cities, is that there is an ongoing tension between the smart city mainly defined in technological terms and a more socially-oriented approach. The latter emphasises the key role of governance, such as coordination and partnership. Governance reform, in that sense, is not limited to government, but extends to collaboration across the wider society. 

So rather than just being all about technological innovation and data, the smart city boom of the last decade is linked to improving the running of a city in a more collaborative way. Consequently, the scope of the smart city has expanded considerably: from a preoccupation with urban infrastructure and service issues, to a far-reaching, transformative social governance project.

Ironically, this could actually signal a positive and promising trend for technology suppliers. For it might just prove that the pioneering technologies for smart cities have greatly matured. To the extent even that the concept of a smart city has left the experimental stage and is currently entering the reality phase, to eventually become mainstream. Whereas the city for a long time merely served as a ‘test site’, ‘hub’ or ‘laboratory’ for setting up pilots and experimenting in smart innovations, it is now finally and effectively transforming into a smart reality. And that is just as well, since technology should always be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

You can read the full study here.

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