This is not a Smart City

Urbanisation is one of the most important megatrends to shape global society of the 21st century. However, urbanisation puts a strain on the quality of life in cities, as well as the management of big infrastructure systems, such as city traffic and energy usage.

The Smart City approach is the paradigm of urban development in the 2010s. It promises to combat these challenges with new technological solutions; information technology can help to bring about new kinds of co-operation and to enable the interweaving of different city elements (energy, buildings, transportation and users). In this way, infrastructure can be used more efficiently with fewer resources, and the growing needs of cities can be satisfied.

The stories of places like Songdo in South Korea or Masdar city in Abu Dhabi fit the classic Smart City mold: technologically highly advanced, newly built cities, planned in a top-down manner by leading architects and technology companies. Great exhibitions of advanced technology, and destinations for experts of urban development from all parts of the globe.

This, however, is not the reality in which most of us urban-dwellers live: our cities are old.

A substantial number of neighbourhoods in Europe were built between the 1950s and 80s. Around one-third of the Finnish, Swedish and Danish residential building stock was built between 1946 and 1970, with around one-fifth erected in the 1970s. These buildings comprise a significant part of their country’s wealth, but are now in dire need of renovation. The populations of these neighbourhoods are becoming impoverished and demographically biased, as many areas are overlooked by the middle class and well-to-do families despite their good urban location and decent access to public transport.

In the past, problems like these were solved by improvements in infrastructure: large-scale investments in state-of-the-art energy and water supply systems, train and subway networks, wider streets and avenues, and replacement of existing building stock. Today, however, such projects face many economic and political obstacles that make their execution difficult. This is why countries like Sweden, Germany or Italy won’t build smart cities in the style of Songdo or Masdar City.

How, then, can we increase, or at least conserve, the future value of the capital embedded in our built environment? What besides for renovation is required to bring about better energy efficiency, or a cleaner appearance of buildings and public spaces?

We now need newer, more innovative and smarter ways to manage urban growth. The urgent need for renovating the ageing mid-20th century building stock opens a window of opportunity: renovation projects allow for improvement of the technical performance, and also hold  great potential for the revitalisation of local retail and service economies, thus enabling sustainable lifestyle changes.

This is complemented by another phenomenon. Emerging trends such as energy scarcity, disruption of retail, digitalisation, emergence of the sharing economy, alongside many others, will fundamentally alter our urban areas. With the right kind of action, however, these trends can be harnessed to better serve the interests of neighbourhoods, companies and individual inhabitants.

These emerging drivers of change promise to transform our cities in ways that are quite different from the powers that shaped them in the early 20th century:

  • Instead of building houses and neighbourhoods from scratch, there will be more renovating and retrofitting of the old.
  • Instead of creating new physical and resource-heavy structures there will be more services and products operating within the digital realm.
  • Instead of centralized top-down reforms there will be processes operating in a distributed, bottom-up manner.
  • Instead of planning and traditional processes there will be engaging visions, experiments and proofs of concepts.

This is a chapter from Nordic Cities Beyond Digital Disruption, a report by Demos Helsinki led project Smart Retro. This begins a series of blog posts featuring excerpts from the report and commentary interviews by world leading experts in urban development.

Praise for Nordic Cities Beyond Digital Disruption:

Everyone knows that the world is changing dramatically so that it feels like a paradigm shift. Yet cities confront both their fragility and vulnerability, especially in relation to the sustainability agenda, with the potentials of a digitizing city, and we know too that the business as usual approach will not work. This is where Smart Retro comes in as a real life laboratory – trying things and testing them, developing prototypes for products, processes and services so helping a new world emerge. This world is based on a different dynamic where individuals and groups operate in new ways as only together can a new civic culture evolve. I for one hope Nordic Cities Beyond Digital Disruption becomes a model from which we all can learn.

Charles Landry, author of The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators