What makes a city smart?

“How many of you have booked accomodation via Airbnb for this conference?”

It was the first question Molly Turner, Director of Public Policy and Civic Partnerships at Airbnb, started her presentation with but the answer seemingly surprised also herself: only a few hands were raised in the audience, consisting of several hundred people.

Undisturbed, she went on to talk about Airbnb and how it fits with the idea of a smart city – the overall theme of the conference I attended earlier this month.

Harnessing technological power to revolutionize how we live in cities

Her talk brought into the conference a theme which I felt lacking up until then: people. You can have all the high-tech applications available used in an urban infrastructure, but without people you have no city.

Using technology for social impact

The examples she gave of how Airbnb puts technology to use to contribute to a more social city were impressive. For example, Airbnb hosts have offered emergency accommodation in the aftermath of super storm Sandy in New York City and of the recent earthquakes in Nepal.

At a more basic level, Airbnb contributes to spreading tourism across a city instead of it being concentrated in the main tourist areas. This helps the city itself. But it also means that visitors get a different perspective on the city – a more local perspective maybe, through meeting residents of the city (their hosts) and through seeing a less commercial and tourist-oriented urban area – and having tourists stay in other areas also means that the economic benefits of tourism are spread out. Not to mention the strengthening of income for hosts, which can again be used in ways to improve their quality of life. It even turns out that using Airbnb is good for the environment!

The discussion on the social part of a city and how to involve citizens came back several times, alongside best practices from cities on e.g. energy infrastructure, smart lighting or using IT-solutions for smart waste management. In my work I follow developments on sustainable urban development in Asia where Dutch (and other European, such as German & Danish) businesses and organizations are working to benefit from their experience developed in Europe and increase their activities in the region.

City development in Europe vs Asia

But during the day it also became clear to me that becoming a smart & sustainable city in Asia means that you often have to work in a very different context than in Europe. In Europe, the transition to becoming more sustainable (which is a big part of being a ‘smart’ city, in my view – smart technology should be used to make a city more sustainable) happens within a city which has existed and developed over centuries and is more or less ‘finished’. Cities still grow and are renewed, but this happens at a much much slower rate than what is currently the case in Asia.

For example in China, cities grow at a rate difficult to imagine: a city such as Chengdu takes in around a million new residents per YEAR. The Netherlands doesn’t even have a city of just one million residents. How China is developing completely new cities is also something that is quite well documented recently. In this case, the starting point for integrating smarter and more sustainable technology or infrastructure is quite different.

Building resilient cities

Another big difference between sustainable urban development in Europe and Asia became clear to me in a break-out session on resilient cities. This interesting session, hosted by DNV GL, explored how cities can prepare for potential future risks which are increasingly likely to occur due to climate change. An example is the increased potential of flooding and the question of how you can keep your critical infrastructure safe (data centers, to name an example). The discussion was introduced with an example scenario looking at the flooding risk for a specific city in 2050.

Yet, for many cities in Asia, the increased volatility of the ecosystem because of climate change is already real and happening right now. For these cities, the discussion can’t be about what they should do to be resilient for risks that may occur in 2050, but it has to be about how to build in that resilience (in infrastructure, in governance, in social networks) now.

Citizen involvement

Back to the people: I was still left with the question of how you can successfully involve a city’s residents in becoming a smarter and more sustainable city. Admittedly, this was not a question that was part of the main topic of that day I think. Yet, I believe it is essential for a liveable and green city. Not only for Europe, but also for Asia – even if governance structures in several Asian countries may be more authoritarian than in Europe.

This was also confirmed in a discussion I had with a Hong Kong participant, who was hoping to find best practices and inspiration on how to give residents a role in decision-making on sustainability topics. She asked how we could work to help people understand that making a sustainable choice should be the better choice – even if that means doing something different than what they are used to (in fact, she talked about ‘having to give up a level of comfort and making sacrifices’ which is a view on sustainability I don’t agree with).

As one of the main speakers of the day, I liked the speech of Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan, in which he defined a smart city as:

a city which makes optimal use of technological opportunities to achieve society’s goals, which are to increase the quality of life for its people.

He also summarized three main characteristics of a city:

  • they are for everyone
  • they need to be balanced
  • they are a source of creativity

A view I completely agree with – and one of the reasons for me to chose my company name: MACHI is the Japanese word for city. I chose this exactly because a city symbolizes for me so many of the things I want my company & the work I do to be about: creativity, diversity, collaboration, participation, opportunities, innovation, energy.

And yes, for the next conference I attended in France this past week, I chose Airbnb to find accommodation.

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