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.

Pilot projects: keys to success

It is likely that the words “smart city pilot project” bring to your mind an image of a street filled with sensors and devices. Truth is, sometimes pilot projects can be somewhat of a show-off, something to be inaugurated and mentioned in the news. However, it is my opinion, that pilot projects can, and should, have a very important role in smart cities.

As Boyd Cohen explains in his article “Smart Cities Should Be More Like Lean Startups”, pilot projects provide the opportunity to fail faster and cheaper. In the case of smart cities this is critical since a city wide deployment of any solution will usually have a sizeable cost. Therefore, pilot projects present an opportunity for cities to do the mistakes at small scale, and be able to change course or to improve the solution, rather than deploying something on all the city and then realizing that in the context it doesn’t work as expected.

I am not saying, however, that cities should simply start doing a lot of pilot projects, what I want is to highlight the importance of studying how to improve these type of projects because when done right they can help drive innovation in cities while reducing the risks in terms of cost and public opinion.

Because all this I have been brooding on this subject for a while and I have come up with what to me are the keys to success for pilot projects.

1. Have a clear objective.

There are are many possible objectives for a pilot project, but in any case it should be clear from the beginning as it will define how the pilot should be executed, what is expected of it and what should be measured in order to evaluate the success of the initiative.The most common objectives can be grouped as follows.

– To test a hypothesis: This is usually the case with the most breaking innovations, when it is necessary to know what the response will be. It can also be needed when the results can be affected by human behaviour. For instance, a smart parking system, by reducing the time it takes drivers to find a spot, will it help to reduce traffic in that area? Or will it cause more people using the car to get to the city now that it is easier to park? When human behaviour is involved, it is hard to predict what it is going to happen, so it is better to analyse first the result at a small scale.

To asses the performance: Some technologies do not perform equally in all contexts, that is the case for example with green roofs, whose performance can be affected by climatic conditions. In a city where there aren’t any, or few, of such roofs, it can be useful  to install one and monitor it to learn its behaviour under that city’s climatological conditions before developing any policy to promote this technology. Then with that knowledge the policy can recommend specific green roof features to make the systems installed on that city more efficient.

– To set a precedent: That is to say, “We must practise what we preach”, and so to engage the citizenry to take up a habit or a solution it is useful that the administration acts as an example as it does in some cases by reducing the impact of public buildings by installing solar panels, or energy monitoring systems.

–  As the first stage of a wider deployment: A tiered implementation in which the first tier works as a test, makes it possible to see how it goes and be able to refine details for the second tier and so forth.

Defining the objective of the project is in my opinion, a crucial step. Without setting a clear objective and making it public, the pilot project will not only be difficult to evaluate, but it can also be easily misunderstood by the citizenry.

2. Measure, evaluate, learn and share the lesson

pilot project does not end once it has been deployed. The performance of the project should be evaluated from the birth of the idea and throughout its entire lifetime. Key performance indicators, goals and milestones should be defined at the beginning of the process and periodically monitored.

All this information should then be analysed to provide learning. Sometimes the lesson can be “this was not a good idea, it doesn’t work in this context so let’s not deploy this at a larger scale” and I would say this kind of lessons may be the most valuable ones. This scenario can be wrongly assumed as a failure, but if the objectives have been clearly defined it does not have to be so. If the objective was to “test” a solution, then it has been fulfilled as long as we extract conclusions that can help us to do better next time.

Finally, the lesson should be shared, both with the public and with other cities. This has different purposes, on one hand citizens will more easily understand the utility of such projects if they are told what is expected to be learned from it and what results have been obtained. On the other hand, sharing the information with other cities will prevent all cities starting from scratch and repeating the same mistakes and therefore increasing the global state of the art in urban innovation.

3. Plan the final stage of the project

When planing the final stage, different scenarios should be considered. In the event the results suggest to no further proceed with the project, one of the options could be to dismantle it, in which case a dismantling plan should have been outlined at the beginning and its economic costs considered in the budget study. Or, on a different note, maybe a proposal could be made to maintain the pilot for educational purposes if that made sense for that project, and then some adjustments could be needed to highlight this new direction, such as a sign, or a route to visit the pilot project.

The optimistic scenario has to be considered as well, if the pilot outcome recommends a wider deployment, or else the repetition of the experience, it will be much easier and efficient if the pilot has been made with such possibility taken into account. An example: if a city were to deploy sensors to measure noise and pollution and decided to start by deploying those in a small area, and then depending on the results deploy them on a wider scale. It would make sense then that the platform these sensors will be connected to can also be scaled in parallel to the scaling of the deployment area.

What I want to highlight here is that the final stage, be it dismantling, re-purposing or scaling the pilot to a wider deployment should be considered from the start in the roadmap of the pilot project. Without this considerations we risk cities becoming a graveyard of forgotten “smart things”.

I am sure in the near future we will be seeing many more pilot projects in our cities and I believe we will keep learning how to make them better, more successful and efficient projects and so in a while I will be able to refine this compilation with new keys, ideas and examples.

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.

Cities in Motion index

Almost every city in the world is nowadays trying to label itself as “smart”. Sensors to measure pollution, a new system to manage urban waste, a poll to let citizens decide on a municipal issue,… the list of things that are considered to increase the smartness of a city is endless. I am very happy every time I read about one of these new projects aimed at improving the functioning of the city or reducing the environmental impact of urban living. However, if every city is considered a smart city simply because they have implemented some of these solutions, citizens and therefore city governments will very quickly feel satisfied and won’t feel such a strong need to improve even more.  Because of this, I believe objective evaluation and comparability between cities is primordial to drive competitiveness to cities to become more sustainable, liveable, innovative… more smart.

It is with this aim to enable objective evaluation, ranking and comparability among cities that the IESE Business School in Spain has developed the index Cities in Motion. The index is very comprehensive, which can be seen though the ten dimensions it covers: Governance,  Public Management: , Urban Planning:, Technology,  Environment,  International Outreach,  Social Cohesion, Mobility and Transportation,  Human Capital, Economy. Each dimension is comprised of different indicators, and some of them rely on indices from other organizations used to measure more specific issues such as the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International or the Strength of Legal Rights Index by the World Bank. This I think, makes this index very objective and complete.

In my opinion a very interesting thing about this index is the visual tool they have developed to show the performance of each city in the different dimensions. This tool allows the reader to know the strengths and weaknesses of the city in question in one single sight. Look here to see the visual representation per any of the analysed cities by clicking in the map.

Looking at this visual representation for the first cities on the ranking, can in my opinion give place to debate.  Tokio, the first of the ranking, has almost a zero on social cohesion, and London and New York (the second and third) also have quite a low score on this dimension. On the opposite, Zurich (the fourth on the ranking) although does not excel as much on some dimensions as the first three, it neither has a bad score in any dimension. Therefore, if I had to choose where to live maybe I would feel more inclined to choose Zurich, than Tokio.

Anyway I think this is, so far, the more accurate and complete index on smart cities I have come across. However, as the authors say in their report, “We understand this as a dynamic project. Here we present a first approximation, but we will keep working so the future editions of this index contain better indicators, greater coverage and a growing predictive value”, I am sure the index can and will be improved in the future. Since cities are such a complex and dynamic environment, any measurement system for cities must be so too.

For more information I recommend you to read this article in the Guardian written by the authors of the index, and here at the IESE portal you can also download the full report, although so far I think it is only available in Spanish.

Euroweek: student conference about Smart Cities

Last week I took part in a student conference called Euroweek. This conference is organized by Primenetworking which stands for “PRofessional Inter-university Management for Educational Networking” an international non-profit association that develops and promotes cross-cultural and interdisciplinary training, academic programmes and research and facilitates co-operation among universities and enterprises.  Their main activity is Euroweek and it is held annually in one of the member universities. The subject of the Euroweek conference is different each year and it is always a subject that relates to fields such as Business Administration, Engineering, Information Technology, Tourism, Marketing or Management.



The reason I attended was that this year the subject was Smart Cities. The University of Girona, where I am currently doing a Master in Smart Cities, is a member of Primenetworking and therefore invited two students of the Master to participate in the conference.

The functioning of the conference is as follows: A set of projects are selected by the different universities. Groups from six students from tree countries (two students of each) are formed and assigned a project. Each group has to work online in the development of the project and, about a month before the meeting, they have to deliver it as a scientific paper. Then, during the Euroweek, students meet in person and have two days to prepare themselves to present the project to a jury (formed by professors from the member universities) and the rest of the students.

It is remarkable I think, that the subject for this year was Smart Cities. To me this is one more sign of the hype this model for urban development is living. One of the challenges for the deployment of smart cities is precisely the lack of expertise in this field, of professionals that are specifically prepared to deal with this new urban reality. Therefore I find really encouraging that universities are working in this subject, specially in an activity that is open to students from different backgrounds (engineering, finances, economy, ..) and different courses and ages.

The projects presented by the students were very varied. There were, among others, one about how to manage the data overflow in cities, one that reviewed technologies to use micro algae for everyday uses such as production of fuel, a smart parking system consisting on a underground elevator and one that developed a mobile app to make cities safer.

My project, which I did in collaboration with another master student from Girona, two first year finance students from Latvia and two first year students of MSc in Business from Italy, was called “Measuring the smartness of cities: approaches”. It reviewed different approaches to measuring “smartness” in cities in a very wide range that included also systems to measure only the quality of life or the sustainability of the city. We conducted a small survey among the students and academics attending the conference to probe the hypothesis  that there is not a clear agreement on what a smart city is and what are the most important features it must have. As we expected the answer to these questions was very varied and although there were coincidences in some aspects, the survey showed the lack of general consensus on this subject.

From the presentations I was able to attend, there were two that specially caught my attention.

The first one was about circular economy. The project was called “Closing the loop: circular economy is smart for territories.” It was a review of projects were circular economy was applied to increase the efficiency of a process. I had heard about circular economy before but did not have a clear understanding of the issue.

After the presentation I grew curious to know more and I have started doing some research on the subject. The basics are: in a circular economy there is no waste, the remnants of a process must be the food for another process, be it another industrial process or to be biologically composted back to the earth. Modularity, versatility, and adaptivity are important features to obtain resilient systems. Energy has to come from renewable sources, as much as possible. One must think in systems: understand how each part of the system affects the others. And in the case of biological materials, think in cascades, to reuse the materials in different applications thought the chain. For more information check the Ellen MacArthur Foundation page about circular economy where they have endless information on the subject.

The second presentation I wanted to mention was about crowd sourcing and how this new financing method could be useful to get working some applications for smart cities that otherwise would not take off. At the beginning they asked the audience who had had, at some moment of their lives, a “brilliant idea” but could not have made it happen because they did not have funding to do so. Of course many people raised hands since the concept brilliant idea was said as kind of a joke, the typical crazy ideas everyone comes up every now and then… and so, the speakers said, this is why crowd funding was useful, to make possible projects that people with not enough money to fund them or credit score to ask for a loan. Their presentation focused on the existing crowd sourcing platforms and the functioning of these and ended with an invitation to imagine the possibilities this brought to smart cities.

And there are so many. There are many applications, inside the broad concept of smart cities, that can make the life of citizens better but need an investment to be made possible. Off the top of my head I can think of: green roof deployment to be used as community kitchen gardens, a mobile app that integrates all the transport possibilities for a specific city (once running the app can be economically maintained by advertising, but it needs an initial investment to be developed) or a bicycle sharing scheme. And this are just the first ideas I could think of that are precisely not at all innovative. But just think for a second of all the brilliant ideas people comes up sometimes. I believe that in some of this cases there could be many people interested in funding these ideas with small donations, be it only to have the idea implemented or with an additional benefit such as being the first to use it, or being a member of the system for free during the first year…

Hearing ideas from international students with different ages and backgrounds was very inspiring and it reaffirmed my belief that the smart cities model is more than a hype because it is a broad concept that can include many others and a flexible one that can be approximated from many points of view. However, as our “survey” showed, there is still a need of clarification of the concept and a more standard and inclusive definition.