How Cities Become What We Want Them To Be

Barbara Flügge

Around the world, digitalization is transforming how we live. While mega cities are at the forefront of digital transformation, even small and midsize cities and tiny villages are looking for ways to co-innovate and generate long-lasting impact through digital technology. Cities are using the data we’re generating, from our cars, mobile apps, public transportation, and homes, to create better environments for their residents and visitors.

The metabolism of cities

Cities are built to serve their people. By collaborating across five domains – governance, economy, transport, environment, and resources, as well as people – stakeholders such as governments, infrastructure providers, and businesses can function together to generate growth opportunities. A unifying reference architecture enables cross-stakeholder openness to connect platforms, solutions, and services in order to provide holistic, inclusive, and locally relevant services. According to goal #11 of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, cities and communities should be inclusive, resilient, safe, and sustainable.

DNA of a Smart City

While every city is driven by the mandate to provide infrastructure, communications, and security, individual cities differ in their approaches based on local circumstances, demography, and legacy solutions. Still, the metabolism of cities, regardless their geography or size, is the same. All seek to implement smart building and zero emission zoning, as well as to support good citizenship in designing public spaces, facilitating employment, or supporting volunteerism. Sant Cugat in Catalonia, Spain, supports good citizenship through smart city technologies. For example, these technologies raise streetlight brightness when motion is detected or alert neighbors about noise levels through a city app, such as when there is a party or event nearby. In a smooth and transparent way, these measures make people aware of their behavior and surroundings.

It’s important for cities to ensure their digitalization initiatives are rigorous and relevant. Proofs of concept (PoC) that are just thrown into a city without assessing them against those criteria may be wasteful, in both time and money, and produce short-term but non-replicable experiences. Instead, digital government initiatives should be SMART – that is social, measurable, adjustable, responsive, and trackable – to ensure they have both rigor and relevance.

Turning digital advancements into benefits

The DNA of a smart city is driven by its multi-dimensional complexity and interdependences. By being the digital representation of a city’s metabolism, a digital boardroom or dashboard can illuminate the links between one element, like infrastructure planning, and others, such as economic and environmental matters. For example, parking space design decisions can be measured against an impact analysis of bus scheduling and event planning.

Cities need to build the skillsets and competences to co-create and understand the true value behind city dashboards. Along with dashboard handling and interpreting capabilities, city dashboard acceptance is driven by their own and third-party advancements, such as data updates, changes in building layouts, machine learning with before/after analytical capabilities, or the ability to sense changes among people waiting at a subway station.

Multi-functional assets, such as Sant Cugat’s streetlights, offer new opportunities for co-creation. Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Antibes, France, offer other examples of how co-creation can turn risks and challenges into opportunities. Whether decreasing the risk of flooding through heavy rain forecasts, or detecting water pipeline events in advance by optimizing the throughput of water, both cities’ efforts have succeeded because they were built around the city ecosystem. Process and business model innovation and the drive to scale beyond the pilot were key to accelerating the projects’ implementation.

Meeting human needs

Looking at people’s real needs through the lens of digital advancements is the way to resolve a city’s most urgent challenges. A city manager with the right tools, technology, and transformation competencies can lead the digitalization initiatives that achieve the most pressing goals. To lead rigorous deployment, city managers must know where they stand, what the smart city master plan should look like, and how to make decisive choices on solution and technology providers.

City managers learn where they stand and what problems they need to solve by looking to the people in their community. Consider the example of elderly residents in need of physical support, social interaction, and financial help. Internet of Things solutions can monitor them and alert children or grandchildren in other cities when they need help. For example, a smart refrigerator can monitor a grandfather’s food supply and provide a notification that food is running short, or a wearable device can identify changes in a grandmother’s health, walking patterns, or air quality. Persona profiling offers insights into people’s needs, and technology loops in to provide critical services in a more sophisticated manner. Literally by sensing the needs and the consequences for each of the personas, city managers and their ecosystem can, for the first time, budget and deliver what citizens really need.

Let me ask you: What is your vision for your city to become what you want it to be?

For more on smart cities and digitalization, see Running Future Cities on Blockchain.


Barbara Flügge

About Barbara Flügge

Barbara Flügge leads smart cities and regions efforts at SAP. As a thought leader, she advises executives, forward thinkers, and innovation leaders in this area. She dedicates her activities to entire ecosystems beocming cities, ports, and mega events in digital and sustainable transformation. Barbara is a strong believer of innovation and digitization as a public good for everyone. She works on global scale and has in depth knowledge in public sector, automotive, manufacturing, telecommunications, and many other industries. Barbara is a recognized speaker, editor,and author.