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Smart Cities Series: Back to the Drawing Board

By - Nov 10 2016

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Are cities engines for development and economic growth? If you had posed this question at Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) headquarters this summer the answer would an overwhelming yes, backed by case studies and expert opinions from agents of urban transformation from across the globe. Brought together for the 1st Smart City Seminar, the Bank welcomed representatives from municipal governments, companies, NGOs, and universities to discuss “Migrating from Traditional City Management to the Smart City,” a new focus of the IDB’s Emerging and Sustainable Cities Program as it works to further harness technology and innovation as vehicles for improved quality of life.

Yet to truly understand the development potential of Smart Cities, it’s important to understand the basics. That’s why this first installment of our three-part series draws from the expertise of the IDB’s own Mauricio Bouskela, a Senior Specialist on Housing and Urban Development, to learn the true definition of “Smart Cities,” why they matter, and more.

 

What does the term “Smart City” really mean?

Mauricio: Put simply, and to quote The Road towards Smart Cities, a recent IDB publication, a “Smart City” is one that places people at the center of development, incorporates Information and Communication Technologies into urban management, and uses these elements as tools to stimulate the design of an effective government that includes collaborative planning and citizen participation. By promoting integrated and sustainable development, Smart Cities become more innovative, competitive, attractive, and resilient, thus improving lives.

To paint a clear picture of this, consider that if we had a Smart Cities recipe to follow, it would include the following ingredients:

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In practical terms, why are Smart Cities a solution to urban challenges? Why should urban actors invest in migrating traditional cities into Smart Cities?

Mauricio: Today, we find ourselves at the convergence of two important phenomena in the history of mankind: the acceleration of global urbanization and the digital revolution.

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is already the most populous developing region in the world, with more than 80% of its inhabitants living in urban centers today. And forecasts indicate that urbanization is here to stay, with estimates holding that by 2050 nearly 86% of LAC’s population will reside in urban centers. This rapid and mostly disorganized growth has brought with it serious challenges for city managers, including: citizen security, mobility, vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change, energy efficiency, water and waste management, citizen participation, broadband connectivity, and more.

Cities never stop, and this makes these challenges more complex, inter-related, and ever-growing. Large cities and metropolitan areas, in turn, are increasingly seen as complex systems in which different environments and individuals are connected.  This makes urban planning and the development of dynamic decision-making mechanisms, which take into account growth and the inclusion of citizen participation processes, more critical than ever.

For city management to be efficient, urban challenges cannot be addressed individually; they  must be analyzed holistically and addressed in an integrated and collaborative way.

Managing and improving cities requires understanding what happens within them. City managers need quality information to make better decisions, and can no longer afford to manage their cities in the traditional way—they must take the road toward a Smart City management model. This comes as an even greater necessity in light of the current financial government constraints – especially at the subnational levels – that need to become more efficient, digitalized, competitive, economical, and revenue generating.

 

What is the role of diverse development actors—including governments, companies, academia, foundations, and NGOs—in helping transform traditional cities into Smart Cities? What can they all bring to the table? Why should they work together?

Mauricio: These different actors—in addition to citizens and civil society organizations—are critical entities who play complementary roles and need to collaborate to respond to complex urban challenges, and promote integrated and sustainable development so that cities become more innovative, competitive, attractive, and resilient.

Governments should be in a leadership position to understand opportunities, drive changes, defend projects, and engage different actors through a common vision.  The role of academia and enterprise is to bring knowledge, innovation, and solutions to the table, while citizens—as beneficiaries—must actively participate in these changes, helping to build the city they want for themselves and their families.

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