Smart places – how universities are shaping a new wave of smart cities

Smart city activities with universities at the heart are growing across Europe, but challenges remain

My latest report for the British Council was launched in Berlin at Going Global a few hours ago. The report draws on interviews with nearly 50 university staff and city officials in eight cities from Bucharest to Zaragoza. It sets out how universities can help build successful ‘smart cities’, but also the dangers faced if they don’t get it right. Read it here (link to report at bottom of page).

Here’s the intro:

A simple message runs through this report: universities are needed to help tackle the serious challenges faced by towns and cities across Europe. Climate change and changing job markets are complex problems needing a wide-ranging response. Poor quality housing and pollution have plagued cities for centuries and progress will require new partnerships.

City leaders should include universities in the fight against these challenges, and in the push to build better societies. Cities need to upgrade universities from advisory roles to actively shaping and delivering projects. But the real onus lies with universities themselves. Universities need to align themselves with the priorities of the city, to be proactive in building partnerships, and to make sometimes difficult internal changes to better meet local needs.

Thousands of partnerships, projects and pilots are being delivered across Europe – from multi-city programmes to neighbourhood initiatives, some in places at the top of smart city league tables and renowned for their research and innovation, and others in regions grappling with economic uncertainty. Yet leaders and planners across the continent share common challenges. Budgets are tight, populations are growing, and new threats and challenges are appearing. City leaders are required to think beyond their city centre to the broader metropolitan area, balancing regional and national relationships whilst forging new international links. They shoulder growing responsibilities for their city to tick the latest urban policy boxes – to be resilient, sustainable and smart.

Universities are also under financial strain, and often juggle teaching and research with the mantle of being civic institutions. Whilst many university leaders understand that this civic role – to help coordinate social and economic activity, to be a good neighbour and positively shape the place they are in – strengthens their teaching and research, challenges remain. Universities are being called to seek tighter integration with their environment, to form stronger bonds with local communities, and deliver more effective projects with longer term impact whilst growing national and international networks, all within a complex political arena. Even in places with a track record of local partners effectively working together, new thinking and new ideas are required.

This report takes you on a tour of eight European cities. It explores how universities and city hall are working together to tackle the challenges faced in each city. Each city has a unique configuration of institutions and a different history of collaboration between the city hall and local universities. In some cities, both sides are building on decades of close working, in others universities are balancing a history of state control whilst exploring new opportunities to work with city officials. All eight cities, however, illustrate a broader trend – the emergence of a new wave of smart cities, placing universities at the heart of a more inclusive, human-focused movement to build better places and societies.

Smart cities redefined


In 1975 NASA drew up plans for a colony in outer space. Called Stanford Torus, the colony would resemble a small city – housing up to 140,000 residents, drawing on the latest technology, and designed to be completely self-sufficient. Stanford Torus is worth considering for two reasons. The first is a reminder that we have been thinking about ‘smart’ cities, and how the latest technology can meet our needs, for a long time (the expansion of Barcelona 150 years ago was designed around the telegraph and railroad). The second is the close resemblance between the artist impressions of Stanford Torus in 1975 and promotional visions of the future city when the hype around smart cities hit around the year 2013.

Discussion around smart cities in 2013 was focused on issues of technology, control, efficiency gains and large infrastructure upgrades, and was driven in part by multinational companies. In his excellent book Smart Cities, published around this period, Anthony Townsend described a vacuum between the top-down, technology-heavy solutions for cities promoted by big companies, and the bottom-up but limited-scale grassroots work of community activists.

The smart city of 2019 looks quite different to that of 2013. The utopian visions have mostly gone (as we will see, they tended to alienate citizens). Movements towards ‘smart governance’ and ‘smart citizenship’ have grown, embodied in initiatives such as open data platforms. This ‘second wave’ of smart cities favours incremental improvements to existing infrastructure rather than entirely new systems. The spotlight is on the needs of residents rather than on glamorous new buildings. Technology may play an important part in solving problems, but it doesn’t look like science fiction. And culture and politics have joined the party – the path to the future city may now be a little messier and a bit noisier, but it is also more realistic and more achievable. Accordingly, this report uses a new definition of smart cities: using new ideas and innovations (which might include technology) to improve cities for the people who live, work and visit there.

Townsend predicted that mayors would step into the vacuum between industry and activists and design the smart city of the future. He was right – but mayors and their teams have company. Organisations such as universities can bolster the work of city hall by drawing on the vast amount of research and innovation they deliver, but also working in closer partnership with city hall. This requires universities to concentrate on where they can really add the most value, and for both university and city leaders to pay attention to developing strong processes and structures for collaboration. Universities also work closely with large and small businesses who continue to be an essential part of this partnership. And their work with communities can help ensure a constant focus on inclusivity and participation. This report shows how eight European cities are doing just that.

Read the full report here!

(Image credits: photo by Valik Chernetskyi; Stanford Torus artist impressions here and here)

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