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Smart cities: What’s in a name?

Is the term ‘smart cities’ helpful, or could it be potentially damaging? What terminology should we use and how much does it matter?


Research this week from location-based marketing company Posterscope found that less than a quarter of UK consumers are aware of the term ‘smart cities’.

The UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities recently concluded that the term can be “alienating” and needs to be both simplified and demystified.

When I tell people what I write about, I often find, too, that they aren’t aware of “smart cities” or only very vaguely. A light definitely goes on when you mention using technology to reduce congestion, for example, or minimise air pollution. All that is a bit of a mouthful for everyday usage (and website naming), though.

While there’s no doubt that more work is required to articulate and explain in detail how and why technology is being used in cities and the benefits it offers, a common language or shorthand is useful.

If not smart, then what?

Perhaps ‘smart cities’ is perceived as having too much of a focus on the technology rather than benefits.

Other suggestions I have heard recently include intelligent city, wise city, enlightened city and loveable city. These better demonstrate the human aspect and the fact that cities are not machines; they are diverse, living organisms that are always changing.

This year’s Smart City Expo World Congress is focusing on liveable cities, which captures the citizen focus. Another popular term – resilient or sustainable city – seems to more clearly sum up the outcomes we are aiming for.

How about future cities? We’ll always be trying to improve our cities – they are not necessarily ‘solveable’ and there is no end state. As Jarmo Eskelinen, Chief Innovation & Technology Officer, Future Cities Catapult UK, noted at Smart Cities Realised in Liverpool recently: “No city plan will ever be full realised before the next plan comes along. Today’s cutting-edge smart city solutions will be tomorrow’s embarrassing legacy.”

While most of these terms have merit, none of them are perfect, or as pervasive as “smart cities”.

What do you think: Does the term matter – particularly in terms of involving citizens? Is it too late to change, or should we quit handwringing over terminology and focus on the task at hand?


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