Smart regions

It would seem this trend on smarting everything up has no limit: we started with smart mobility, smart energy or smart economy and we are now hearing concepts such as smart food or smart clothes. The list can be endless. Among all these we can find the concept of smart region. Do you think this concept makes sense? Or it is going to be just a buzzword? My opinion would be that, if taken further than just a marketing strategy, this concept can not only make sense but to have an important impact in the near future. I think it does make sense that the same paradigm that can make a city, more liveable, sustainable and efficient can also be applied with similar aim to a region and even to an entire nation.
Note: From now on I will be using the word “region”, but in this concept I am including any geographical unit from counties to nations and their respective governments.

To me, there are two sides to the concept of smart region depending on the scope of the projects being developed. On one side we would have the idea of applying the smart paradigm to an entire region, thus developing initiatives that have a regional scope. On a second side we would then find the promotion of local initiatives, that is to say, initiatives with local scope developed in the urban areas contained in that region. Let’s delve a little bit more into each.

Regarding the first aspect, in order to drive change towards a smarter region, the corresponding government can develop initiatives in sectors whose scope is bigger than citywide. For instance, education issues often depend from a national or regional department. It would then be advisable, that to implement smart solutions on that sector, the initiative was led by the regional government. Maybe the idea can come from a municipal department and first be tried out in a pilot project in a specific school by that municipality. But then, in case the try-out is successful, it would be the regional government who can apply that innovation to all schools across the region.

The second role a region can play to drive smartness is to help the entities it comprises, from cities and towns, to the smallest villages, to advance in the path to become smarter.
In that sense, regional authorities can promote the development of smart projects within each of these entities. There are many ways to do that: replicating success cases from one city to another, providing guidance and support to municipal governments, developing a guide or a plan for them to follow, helping them get access to funds or enabling contact with suppliers.

Furthermore, regional governments can drive collaboration between municipalities. This can be of special use for small towns which may not have volume enough to implement some of the smart city features, and therefore could partner with other small towns, in order to gain efficiencies by volume and benefit from economies of scale. An example could be, the sharing of a service such as a sensor platform, which for a single small town may not be cost efficient. Quoting an article from my colleague Jaume Batlle, “just as businesses need to have volume to be competitive, so must our cities do, by taking advantage from the synergies of partnering and also by leveraging the branding power of the biggest cities on that region”. Regional governments, in my opinion, have the capacity to be drivers of this process and so can be key players in order to make it happen.

However, the need for collaboration does not only apply to groups of small villages. It can also be of importance for urban regions around a big city. In these areas, the distinction between one municipality and the next is not always clear, and often they all share most of the challenges they are facing, such as urban mobility issues, pollution or crime. For instance, it would make sense then to manage mobility in that area as whole since usually many people from the surrounding areas work at the city centre and therefore there is a lot of mobility around the entire urban area.

Lastly, I would like to discuss a third aspect that cannot be assigned to on to the two sides I have defined and which is regarding policy making. Regional governments have in most cases remit in many policies that can affect smart city deployment. Therefore, for smart cities to fully thrive in that region, it is necessary that the government defines the legal frameworks that enable the implementation of many of the smart cities features. A clear example of this can be found in Spain, where the policies that regulate low-voltage distribution in multi-family blocks prevents the installation of electric vehicle charging points in communal parking areas. And so in this case a modification to this policy, that is remit of the national government, will be essential to allow the widespread adoption of electric vehicles on a city level.

In conclusion, not only do I believe the concept of smart region makes sense, I would go even further and say I think it has become a need. Being smart means collaborating, integrating and having holistic vision… and all of this is what smart region means to me.
Cities around the globe have already started collaborating between them, and now, without stopping that great international cooperation (or should I say, coopetition), we must start looking at our neighbour municipalities as well. The And regions should get engaged in the smart revolution, learning from cities and at the same time helping them so that together we can all walk faster, cheaper and easier along the path towards smarter, more efficient, sustainable and liveable urban areas.


About the concept of Smart Cities

“What is a smart city?” I get this question quite often when I tell people I am studying a master in Smart Cities. Some people are new to the concept while others already have some notions on what a smart cities are. Those last will ask: Is it putting sensors to monitor the city, it is having wifi everywhere, it is about been more environmentally sustainable?

To this kind of questions I usually answer that Smart Cities is such a broad term it can include all that, and much more. It is about making cities more liveable, about increasing the amount of data gathered by installing sensors, having better connectivity both in the sense of transport system and ICTs being more sustainable, not only environmental but also at a social and economical level…

Many definitions have been made, and I will not attempt here to add one more definition. I will, however, try to discuss here my vision on this concept, taking into account what I have seen so far about it.

I like to think about Smart Cities as an umbrella concept that covers all the different applications, ideas, initiatives… that aim to somehow improve some aspect of cities. In this sense, something “small”, like an app to know the bus timetable, can be found under this umbrella at the same time as something as “big” as a city platform that coordinates all services, sensors and everything going on in a city. Similarly, the term can encompass technology-based solutions, such as sensor deployment to optimize the traffic, or non-technological solutions such as the creation of green corridors along the city.

Moreover, when talking about the objectives a smart city should pursue, I like the classification that is used in many cases, that a smart city should improve and be sustainable in three fronts or axis: environmental, social and economic. It cannot be forgotten that the final purpose is to make cities better for citizens, both the current dwellers of the city and the future ones, and therefore, any smart city approach has to be citizen centred and with a long term vision. Also, there are some key terms that go alongside smart city, such as are resilience, predictability, collaboration and transparency.


Future city by Neil Kremer on Flickr.

There are concerns about the term being overused, and most certainly it is important to be careful it does not become an empty concept. However, I believe that understanding that the term”smart city” is sometimes used more as this broad umbrella than an idealized goal can also take some pressure off this term.

In this sense, “smart city” could be more like a pathway a city walks to become a better city, than an end goal defining what the city has to become. So a city that chooses to walk this “smart” pathway, chooses to use ICTs, innovation, collaboration principles and any other “smart city” tool, in order to strive for greater social, environmental and economic sustainability.

I will finish up on my thoughts by adding that this is, necessarily, a concept in constant evolution. As cities walk their “smart city pathway” and encounter new difficulties, challenges and also new outcomes, definitions of the term and the initiative will have to evolve and new ones will appear.

PS: I am in constant learning, so I am sure my vision on this subject will keep reshaping and evolving. You are all welcome to comment on and debate my ideas as long as it is in a constructive manner.