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Smart cities: a value framework for the future

The idea of a smart city is a compelling and attractive one. But despite innovative examples from around the world, there is still no common frame of reference, or even common definitions, for all the ideas it embraces.


As urban development projects find new ways to integrate information and communications technology (ICT) into their infrastructure and services, research by Krista Timeus, Jordi Vinaixa and Francesc Pardo-Bosch at Esade proposes the "city model canvas" (CMC) – to identify the elements for city councils to consider when they look at designing, delivering, and assessing smart services.

Part of the challenge for the smart cities movement has been around demonstrating value for the people who actually live there.

Cities are complex organisms with many stakeholders, and changes to the ways they work must somehow balance and reflect the needs of business, public sector organisations, and infrastructure provision such as transport services, as well as a diverse population of individual inhabitants. These interested parties may all be inclined to measure improvements to their environments in different ways but the CMC, which is based on the business model canvas, is about delivering public value through smart services.

Sustainable Paris
Part of the challenge for the smart cities movement has been around demonstrating value for the people who actually live there (Photo: Olivier Djiann/Getty Images)

This really matters, because the integration of smart technology and collaboration in our living environments can have costs as well as benefits, and some of the examples coming out of new East Asian supercity developments have raised doubts about surveillance and privacy infringements.

The benefits of innovations such as integrated transport apps – so people can choose the fastest or cheapest way to get across town or find a parking spot – are easy to describe and appreciate, but citywide reductions in emissions or resource consumption are a harder sell, and trust in local governance varies.

Delivering smart city value with the CMC

The CMC framework can help city councils to define and express how they intent to create and deliver value through smart services, in an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable way, as well as to assess what it’s already doing and where there may be room for improvement.

It consists of 14 different elements, organised around the mission and aims, the delivery mechanisms, the creation of value, and the way that value is measured across the economic, environmental, and social dimensions.

Sustainable city
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This final "triple bottom line" perspective ensures that any trade-offs in the benefits can be evaluated and explored – such as a project with a high social cost but significant environmental payoff – before a decision is implemented.

Looking at the example of Bristol in the UK, a smart city "Lighthouse" participating in the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Project REPLICATE, we can see the benefits of the CMC in use.

The city council applied the framework through a series of workshops and structured interviews with stakeholder groups, to create the CMC in collaboration with the City Innovation Team, in 2017. Together, they moved through the canvas from the mission through to the triple bottom line, collecting and discussing ideas and opinions on every element, before working together to develop consensus around each through moderated debate, and developing a value proposition that reflected the needs of all participants.

The CMC in action

As well as leading to plans for a pilot project to test the ICT platform in real life, the deployment of the CMC proved valuable in identifying stakeholders and beneficiaries in the first place. Mapping resources and requirements transparently helped draw out the direct and indirect benefits of each change, and who would receive them – for example, public transport users may be the primary beneficiaries of smart bus timetabling, but all road users will see efficiencies in their individual travel time thanks to reduced congestion, and the lower particulate pollution caused will be good for everyone, even those staying indoors.

Robot bus
Public transport users may be the primary beneficiaries of smart bus timetabling (Photo: Lev Karavanov/Getty Images)

The test of the CMC also highlighted how difficult it was to predict and even measure some of the consequences involved, such as social risks. Ensuring the privacy and data protection of citizens, and that the system does not reflect and reinforce intrinsic biases, were among the examples that surfaced in Bristol.

But the benefits of holistic planning were evident. Simply being able to compile an overview of the complexity of a changes in a living breathing city, and express that on a single page where it could be shared and discussed, created new value and levels of engagement.

Smart cities and the future

As such, the framework as it stands can inform future iterations, to prepare it for use in evaluating the impact of change post-implementation. The evolution of smart cities is a moving target, driven by a range of factors. New technologies emerge continually, and their costs come down – changing the way people behave and make choices as citizens and consumers.

Environmental considerations and effects of climate change bring different pressures to bear on individuals and institutions. And finally, the global changes brought about by the health crisis of 2020 will doubtless have lasting impact on how we live, work, and move in our cities forever.

Tools like the CMC can help synthesise the learning from these disparate influences, and ensure that the voice of every interested party is heard, at every stage, from planning to evaluation. As the greatest minds in the world come together to help us all to "build back better," we’ll need frameworks like this to manage the complexity of our urban environments, and make the right decisions together.

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