Projects for intelligent and smart cities: drivers and barriers of cities transformation with digital technologies

Workshop of the School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University, Beijing, 19 June 2021


Intelligent cities or smart cities evolve bottom-up along with the digitisation and the creation of digital entities linked to human activities, physical space, and institutional setting of cities; but also, they progress top-down through smart city strategies and projects designed and implemented by public and private authorities.

Yet, thirty-five years since the first use of the term “smart city” or “intelligent city” in the second half of the 1980s, and more than ten years of intense publications in this field, since 2009, there is still a great deal of fuzziness about the projects that make cities intelligent or smart. There is low awareness about the big differences between large, complex urban projects, such as ‘Zero Energy Districts’ or “Mobility-as-a-Service” and projects for the automation of city infrastructures, such as smart city lighting, smart metering or finding a parking place. There is a widespread misconception that city intelligence or smartness, the core attribute of smart cities can be achieved through automation of the city infrastructure.

This talk focuses on projects that make cities intelligent or smart. Our intention is to show the complexity and effort needed to achieve this objective. It is an inquiry on projects and data from a large number of smart cities around the world. We analyse core properties of smart city projects, such as (a) interventions on the physical, social, and digital space of cities, (b) the relation to city sectors and ecosystems, (c) engagement of users and stakeholders in decision-making, and (c) impact through optimisation and innovation of city processes and routines. We discuss also the outcomes of projects we have designed and implemented in the framework of URENIO Research, a Lab at the School of Engineering, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Our conclusions are two-fold. First, we propose a typology of smart city projects along 3 axes (ecosystems, drivers of intelligence, impact) and 3 properties per axis, which highlight the complexity of cities’ transformation with digital technologies. Second, we argue that success and failure to achieve city smartness are mainly institutional. Most barriers to project implementation are organisational, legal, and institutional. This can be explained by the social and institutional inertia of the urban system against new solutions, especially when innovation and radical change of existing routines take place. Change management should be a permanent companion of smart city project implementation, and the modification of routines should be clearly defined and considered already at the design phase of projects.

Download the PPP: 2021-06-Projects for intelligent and smart cities-Beijing pre-meeting