Smart cities need a long-term view

By Bob Pell | April 14, 2016

The word "smart" is used a lot. If you're a city facing up to the challenges of the future, being smart sometimes means just being able to take a step back. Sometimes it means taking a longer-term view.

It may mean trying to decide what you want to be, but living with what you have today. And, as we all know, “today” is very different in, say, Beijing compared with New York . The challenge is, starting from where you are today, how do you begin to create that focus on what you want to achieve and turn that into a set of plans and aspirations for what you can do better. What you can do now.

There needs to be planning. In Gauteng province in South Africa, for instance, there is an integrated infrastructure master plan being prepared. It’s taking a twenty-year view, assessing the needs of current and future populations, as well as the changes that are planned for the economic structure of the region. Major investments are required. Priorities need to be established and agreed to by key stakeholders. When all is said and done, the plan has the potential to optimize population movement, enable economic growth, and improve the sustainability of the resources available. 

Never believe small steps aren’t important. They can have big impacts. Many problems can be addressed with some relatively simple optimization strategies. Some communities have lost confidence in their infrastructure due to underinvestment, poor performance, poor delivery, and lack of information. These are fundamental failures. So, if we can make inroads on those things with careful planning, delivering good, well-performing infrastructure at a lower, or at least a reasonable, capital cost, then communities will likely start regaining the confidence to do more.

There are always opportunities for the right kind of new development. We need to find more of them, and take a longer-term view. Again in South Africa, a team is developing a master plan for the Durban Aerotropolis. This area is earmarked for the city’s major extension to the north. Timing is key. Now, there are special opportunities to build on the relationship with the international airport that likely won’t come again.

Many of our cities are ready and willing to be reshaped. Calgary, Canada, is reviewing zoning and land development around its key transit hubs on the Greenline LRT. Here and around the world, transit-oriented development is enabling metropolitan areas to use their infrastructure more effectively, increasing density and reducing the per-capita cost of serving new populations. With forethought and the right plans, we’ll be seeing new city shapes―and cityscapes―emerge, primed and ready for the future.

Finally, we have to do more to “technologize.” Communications, control systems and “big data” offer huge potential for global mobility, connecting people and information. Technology will be the enabler. Big data collects information from your own city and lets us compare it to other parts of the world that may have the qualities you’re aiming for. Benchmarking presents best practices, and that gives us a range of choices.

“Smart" means integrating those choices with designs we can conceptualize, operationalize, and deliver well. So, the smart city is the one that achieves its objectives with good, fluent use of technology. It doesn't necessarily have to be the most advanced. But it has to be used well and cost-efficiently.