Sarah Barns

Essays and other writing

Recent news and views across urban data strategy, creative programming and digital place-making. 

Thinking the smart city: from smart to data-smart

Here in Australia, we’ve been in no particular hurry to become smart. When I started seriously getting stuck into data-driven cities in a big way in 2012 there wasn’t much to be seen. But that’s now changing. Across the country we’re now seeing a significant upswing of interest in the potentials of smart cities, and how technology can be better leveraged to support our cities’ greatest challenges.

Subsequently, I’m hearing again and again the question: “But what, exactly, is a smart city?” I smile with clenched teeth. Unfortunately the debate about what smart cities are, and who they benefit, has become a bit tiring and not so productive. Don’t you agree?

Ultimately, whether or not we want to call our cities ‘smart’, digital disruption is transforming our cities’ infrastructures and services in fundamental ways (ask any taxi driver). But sometimes this seems not so obvious to many city administrators. As a result, I tend to think anyattention towards how emerging data infrastructures will shape the way our cities perform is a good thing—and if a focus on this question needs to occur through the prism of the ‘smart city’, then so be it.

Not so archetypal image of the smart city.  Franco Recchia’ s microchip cities.

Not so archetypal image of the smart city. Franco Recchia’s microchip cities.

So let’s not stand around debating what the ‘ideal’ smart city is. Lets just call it ‘utopia’, or ‘the good city’ (the place we all want to live in) and get on with the more important work to be done.

Having said this, I confess I have landed on a conceptual approach to understanding the smart city that I thought worth sharing. I credit the work of Rick Robinson here, aka the Urban Technologist, who I have been drawing from a bit as I’ve been working through ideas for a series of reports I’ve been writing.

Not a model, not a mainframe. It’s a process.

Smart cities should be supported not so much as a static model or even a platform, but instead as an ongoing process, one that is led by a vision to harness the potentials of digital disruption to serve a city’s most pressing needs and challenges.

In other words, investing in a smart city should be less about the specific technology platform or operation model in place, but about building greater alignment between a city’s digital ecosystem and its and city-wide goals.

For this reason, the rise of smart cities is now putting the spotlight on the qualities of city leadership. Because without clear vision and city leadership, a smart city becomes a series of disconnected technology platforms that go nowhere.

Not a definition of the smart city: A smart city commits to harnessing the power of digital to enable a city to thrive, to support its communities, and to grow great places worth living in, for current and future generations.


Australian cities have been in no hurry to become smart. Source: SBS.

Australian cities have been in no hurry to become smart. Source: SBS.

When things start to get exciting

It’s widely agreed that despite a lot of effort, the smart city push hasn’t had many breakthrough successes so far. (Read the aforementioned Rick Robinson on ‘why smart cities aren’t working for us after 20 years’ if you want to understand why.)

We’re now hearing whispers that things are now changing, as ‘smart cities 1.0’ makes way for ‘smart cities 2.0’.

Not the most original way of framing a technology shift, but still, the next phase of development is starting to get a bit exciting. And it may be that Australia benefits from its laggard status in the world of smart cities, in being able to learn from others’ mistakes.

To refresh where we’ve been.

Smart Cities 1.0. When technology companies like IBM and Cisco try to tell cities to buy their kit, which they expect cities to depend on so heavily to run their services that they essentially become the Microsoft of city administration and benefit from open chequebooks for decades. Except, cities aren’t buying because they’re a) mostly broke b) mostly made up of tiny and cash strapped councils that lack purchasing power (eg, mostly broke, but also too administratively small) and c) “don’t get it” — in other words, aren’t 100% sure about how IBM or Cisco are going to make their cities less complicated than they already are.

Smart Cities 2.0. The shift taking place now is what I like to call a shift from ‘smart’ to ‘data-smart’. The rise of big data, the internet of things, cloud computing and advanced analytics means cities are increasingly major market places for the data economy. Whether or not our governments or technology companies call our cities smart, we live in a data-driven world. City leaders increasingly need access to high quality data to achieve the best outcomes for their communities. This means championing for access to high quality data, through data brokering, data partnerships, and data collaboratives, in support of the wider social, environmental and strategic goals of their cities. The ‘smartest’ cities will be those that can do this most successfully.


So getting ‘data-smart’ puts the onus on city governments to broker stronger partnerships between technology companies, citizens, utility providers and business.

In Australia especially, where the focus is on infrastructure investment, growing interest in ‘value capture’ also offers a good model for building greater data-smarts. If government investment (say, in transport infrastructure, but what about smart infrastructure?) helps to raise profits for private developers (developers along rail corridors, but what about technology vendors?), how can the benefits accrued by these profits be shared with the original investors — eg, government?

This is a fascinating time for new governance models. Whether or not we want to call them ‘smart’!