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)

Academic writing workflow: how to read lots as efficiently as possible

A break from our regular programming, this is the second in an occasional series on processes and tools (first post on creating your own maps here).

Here’s my academic writing workflow: it allows me to quickly pull together information from dozens of articles into a structured format that allows new ideas and connections to form. It won’t work for everyone, although there is plenty of scope for customisation.

1. Pulling everything together

I won’t go into great detail here, but I collect all my research materials together first. For me, this is PDFs of articles, reports, and book chapters. I use Papers for Mac and group everything into project folders, although there are plenty of other research managers: Zotero and Mendeley are free. Google Scholar is invaluable for sourcing articles (Papers allows you to search Google Scholar and import articles from within the application).

papers
Example screenshot of Papers for Mac: note the highlighted PDF

2. Highlighting and commenting

I now read through everything in rough order of how important I think the article will be. This means later articles can be skim read (when concentration levels are lower) to pick up additional insight or nuance. Whilst reading I highlight relevant paragraphs or sentences – as less is better try to avoid highlighting entire pages – and add comments with any thoughts or ideas. Papers has this function built in; an application like Skim (open source for Mac) can also do this.

3. Exporting and tagging notes

All highlights are now exported as plain text files – one per article or report, or a single file with all highlights across all readings. The beauty of highlighting in an application like Papers or Skim is the automatic inclusion of page numbers and other bibliographic information in the exported file.

Depending on the complexity of the project, I may just export all the notes as one giant text file, print this, and start writing. However, in more advanced literature reviews, for example, an extra step is helpful. In this case, I export each reading as an individual file (one click in Papers) and import these into TAMS Analyzer, an excellent open-source Mac application for qualitative text analysis. Effective use of TAMS Analyzer is a post in itself, but the documentation is fairly solid.

I then work through my imported highlights, and tag them. Usually this will be within 4-5 headings that will naturally emerge from the initial reading: for a recent review of universities and place, for example, I had the headings ‘leadership’, ‘international’, ‘regional’, ‘urban’ and ‘conclusions’. Finally, with a couple of clicks, TAMS Analyzer can generate a table with headings at the top, and all of the highlights below – one box per highlight. The source name – drawn from the plain text export of your initial highlights – is appended (usually Author-Year).

The great benefit of this extra step is a single file that can easily contain insight and analysis from twenty or thirty articles (or more). Instead of thirty print outs, you have one – admittedly quite big – file with several thematic groupings, each with a mixture of authors and sources. This makes writing much, much easier.

tams output
HTML output from TAMS Analyzer: you can reformat so it’s easier to print (and read) 

4. Writing

Again, I won’t go into this too much, as most people have their own tools and preferred way of working. I use Ulysses for Mac, which works fantastically for academic writing (more here). Citations are easily managed via Papers (or any other research manager), which sorts all the references and bibliographic information once the final text is exported into Word. Using the Magic Citations tool you insert references as you write (the source name, Author-Year, is in your table from step three).

I work through the table of notes as I write, often sequentially by thematic heading. This has two main benefits: you’re drawing on notes ordered by theme not author, so you naturally avoid paragraphs with multiple citations from the same source. Second, with excerpts from many sources sitting next to each other in the table, you make new connections between different authors and ideas. Any notes or comments you made on the initial read through are also included.

magic citations
Papers’ Magic Citations tool used in Ulysses

Concluding comments

This workflow mimics a paper method I used years ago, which took a lot more time (and a lot more paper). Some may prefer to read from paper copies – I tend to print just the most important articles. Others prefer to write as they read.

For those working outside the social sciences this workflow may not work so well – but I’d be interested to test this. It doesn’t work so well with books unless you have a PDF version, although these are often cumbersome. I tend to take notes on books outside of Papers, and save these as a text file to be used in step three.

Lastly, the flow in workflow is important. If you wait too long between the first few stages and stage four (writing) you begin to lose the connections you form when you make the initial highlights. The wider context of selected sentences is lost, and you forget why you highlighted certain sections in the first place.

January 2019 update: I’m writing a short e-book that will cover this topic (and much more) in more detail. Sign up here or press the red button below if you’d like to receive an email when it’s finished.

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Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash