How universities can help ‘smart cities’ become transformative (and why leapfrogging is difficult)

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences

We are some way from realising the transformative effects of smart cities,1 and further still from these effects benefiting the poorest in society. I have a couple of thoughts on their potential:

  1. Can smart cities be to cities what smartphones are to ‘dumb’ phones? A button (non-smart) phone today seems closed and antiquated compared to the limitless panoply of apps and the functionality of touchscreen phones. Or will the ‘wide experiential gulf’ between the top-end smartphones and generic low-end smartphone handsets be replicated in tomorrow’s smart cities? I suspect there will be wide variations in effective implementation, and I suspect the impact will be far less dramatic and sudden than the shift from ‘dumb’ to smart phones. Cities have been developing for thousands of years and smart infrastructure needs to be embedded and layered upon existing foundations. But a transformative, positive wave of impact is possible.
  2. Can this wave of possible impact enable some cities to ‘leapfrog’ their development? Comparing cities again to phones, think of a country with limited phone networks skipping the installation of telegraph poles and landlines and instead building a fast mobile network. Kenya, for example, has excellent mobile phone reception in remote areas but limited landlines. So could a smart city allow urban areas with poor healthcare, high crime, limited access to, for example, banks and bus routes, and areas of general deprivation to leapfrog some of the traditional, slower means of development? Unfortunately, smart cities are no shortcut, and mobile phones are an unusually effective leapfrogger. Instead, you usually need to have gone ‘medium tech’ before you can go ‘high tech’.

So what is needed? Cities will need to be both adaptable and smart. Underpinning both is social capital. The World Economic Forum has developed a four part taxonomy of city competitiveness, with ‘soft connectivity’, a city’s social capital, a critical factor. Education is the ‘ultimate soft connectivity’, and cities can specialise in knowledge intensive niches by capitalising on education. Education and soft connectivity make investments in hard infrastructure and new technology more productive.

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences. A city with a highly skilled workforce, with access to continuous education and training opportunities, is also a highly adaptive one.

An adaptive city is a resilient city. Work by Nesta has shown that 87 percent of highly creative workers are at low or no risk of automation compared with 40 percent of jobs in the UK as a whole. You can complete an online survey to determine whether your job is at risk of being taken by a robot. Whilst automation is likely to solve many more problems than it creates, a successful city in future years will adapt to these changes, attracting creative industries and highly skilled jobs.

The objectives of ‘smart’ and ‘adaptable’ cities are mutually reinforcing, with a smart city a more responsive one, and an adaptable city more likely to benefit from the insights delivered through data and technology. Universities play an important role in developing and testing new technologies, curating and understanding data (and the infrastructure behind it), and conceptualising and operationalising the ‘Internet of Things’ – a network of physical objects that collect and exchange information.

City leaders and universities will need to work together to harness the benefits of smart cities. The UK Future Cities Catapult is a good example of this, bringing together businesses, universities and city leaders to turn ideas into prototypes, including developing sensor networks and unlocking urban data. There is particular focus on smart cities in emerging economies. The Catapult has just signed an MOU with the China Center for Urban Development, building on smart city collaboration two years ago between Bristol and Guangzhou, and last year between Manchester and Wuhan. And in 2015 India set a target of 100 smart cities, focussing on satellite towns of larger cities and modernising existing mid-sized cities. It will be interesting to see whether any ‘leapfrogging’ takes place within these cities, and how inclusive the benefits are.


  1. There are many definitions of smart cities, but I like the European Commission one: ‘a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses’. 

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