Since the turn of the millennium, the idea of smart cities has been sold to us by pretty much every major IT company. We’ve been told that new technologies will make our lives easier, our roads less congested, and our carbon footprint a good few sizes smaller. At times it might sound hard to believe, but the truth is that we’re only just starting to imagine what is possible with this technology.

Unfortunately, many initiatives are seeking to build smart cities from the wrong direction. Take IBM or Cisco for instance. They have both launched initiatives advocating a one-size fits all, top-down strategic approach to sustainability, citizen well-being and economic development. This will not work.

Where they are going wrong is focusing their attention on city (infra)structures, rather than the people that make it what it is. Orders coming from unseen government computers will not make a city smart. Rather, it is the citizens that will make the city by finding ways to craft, interlink and make sense of their own data.

Smart cities start with the citizen

A single application or central organising body, with predetermined parameters and solutions, cannot establish a city. Smart cities will be defined by citizens collaborating with each other to create devices and applications that both identify and solve local problems. Smart cities will be places that foster creativity, where citizens are generators of ideas, services and solutions. Like the late, great urbanist, Jane Jacobs, I believe that citizens will shape how cities look and work in the future by themselves, creating “spontaneous order from below”.

Given the state of the world’s economy today, this has to be a more sensible approach to take. After all most cities, especially those in developing markets, cannot afford to ‘sensor-enable’ every street, traffic light, police car and so on, regardless of what the benefits may be. And even if funding could be found for the hardware and installation costs, the maintenance costs would be colossal, not to mention the investment needed in data centres and other IT infrastructure just to handle the sheer volume of data.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a city found a pot of gold to cover the capital and operating costs of becoming smart. They would still have forgotten that the smart city proposition, in order to be sustainable, is not just about becoming more efficient, it’s about building a flexible system that can adjust to changes dynamically and respond to unpredictable phenomena, while harnessing the creative capacity of its inhabitants.

It is vital that citizens are given the ability to adjust and rewire the city as needed to solve problems and overcome obstacles in their own lives. Smart systems should not just be installed atop a city, and then maintained as the status quo forever. The smart city, just like any ‘regular’ city, is an engine for daily changes.

What role should governments and corporations play?

It is undeniable that corporations and governments have an integral role to play in the creation of smart cities. They need to enable and encourage smart entrepreneurship and engaged citizens. That isn’t achieved through mobile apps via which citizens file complaints (one of the common top-down solutions provided by big IT firms) – it’s achieved by involving citizens directly in developing solutions they complain about.

Governments also have a role in giving citizens open access to data, but it’s not just about making data public. Governments and corporations must make it as easy as possible for citizens to create and contribute data themselves.

There’s also an important duty for governments to support common frameworks, open standards and structured-data formats mandatory. It would be much easier for communities to make use of data if all businesses were required to publish their data through an appropriately-defined API, for example.

And, of course, it goes without saying that there are some things that can only be accomplished at scale, by governments and corporations, such as communications infrastructure and other utilities.

No silver bullet

While it would certainly be easier if cities could be made smart with a ‘one-stop-shop’ solution, it has become quite clear that this is a pipedream. Connecting systems and bridging data will not solve tough issues overnight. At best, such systems will provide a greater visibility of urban problems.

If cities are to become truly smart, citizens must be empowered to solve challenges dynamically. Let’s hope that our cities make the smart choice and don’t spend billions implementing top-down systems that will never work. As Jane Jacobs said: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and when, they are created by everybody”.