What makes a city smart? In the wake of rapid urbanisation and the dawning realisation of the economic importance of urban areas, the initial focus was on presenting technology-led improvements in administration as the essence of smart cities. More recently, there has been an addition to this, with sound infrastructure also being added to the basket. Despite this, however, administration is the lens through which the future of cities is imagined.
Surely the state is important, and improving administration is undoubtedly a good thing. But vibrant cities require a lot more than that. Most importantly, they will have to be trusted with the right to choose their own directions of growth, rather than have to steer by courses that are set for them by state and central governments. And they will be need to be as much self-governed by citizens as governed by representatives and public officials. For now, these two pillars of good cities remain distant from the political imagination.
As a result, what we are certain to witness will be the gentrification of some areas, typically those that were already in the upper half of the economy. That has been the story of urbanisation so far, and it will continue to be until we recognise a simple truth - things that are not equally available to all citizens will usually become unavailable to the poor. The stumbling block at the heart of the Smart Cities mission is the selective focus on some cities and some neighbourhoods within them. We told ourselves that we could begin with these, as a way of learning the way forward. In fact, such a beginning has itself become the reason why the journey will be difficult. It would be much better to adopt a different approach, where public expenditure and governance are both decentralised, and cities themselves begin to steer their futures.
By all means let's improve footpaths and market squares, and let's get intelligent about lighting and parking systems, and water supply and power. But let's agree, above all that, to be intelligent with our democracy too....