Smart cities are anticipated to create huge business opportunities with a market value of 1.6 trillion dollars by 2020. Amidst growing fascination with the promise of digital technologies, do we really understand how to think strategically about cities? We talk to Dr Tooran Alizadeh, an interdisciplinary academic based at the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, to find out more.
Show notes and links
Sandra Introduction: Smart Cities are anticipated to create huge business opportunities with a market value of 1.6 trillion dollars by 2020. Amidst growing fascination with the promise of digital technologies, do we really understand how to think strategically about cities?
Intro: From the University of Sydney Business School this is Sydney Business Insights, the podcast that explores the future of business.
Sandra: I'm Sandra Peter and today we talk to Dr. Tooran Alizadeh. Tooran is an interdisciplinary academic based at the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. She researches smart cities, urban digital strategy, as well as policy and planning implications of telecom infrastructure with a focus on the National Broadband Network. Welcome Tooran, and thank you for talking to us today.
Tooran: No problem, pleasure to be here.
Sandra: So, what are smart cities?
Tooran: Okay. That's actually a very difficult question, because what I can honestly say is that there is no universally agreed definition for smart cities, so different people have different take on smart cities, different cities have their own different take on smart cities. So, it depends on who you are talking to, smart cities might have very different definitions. When it comes to smart cities we have to bear in mind that this is a concept that was coined by corporations. A smart city was not something that was started by urban planners, urban managers, engineers or even business people. It is a concept that was coined by quite a few global firms like IBM, Cisco, Google and basically places like that. Most people do not realise that IBM has made the term 'smarter cities' as one of their trademark. So, you can't even use that term. Basically, they have the copyright of the term. Yes. I know, that comes as a shock to most people. But the reality is that it seems like after quite a number of terms that have changed over the years, you know at some point you had knowledge-based development, at other point we had digital cities, at other point we had livable communities. At another point we had ubiquitous cities, there's no shortage of terms. It seems like a smart city is something that now there is a level of consensus around it (although we don't know what it is). And I have heard quite a few times that the reason for that is that no one want to be dumb city. So, let's go for smart, it is a good adjective to keep. One thing that cannot be denied is that especially earlier attempts of a smart city had a lot to do with fascination around this technology that is transforming the way that we live, the way that we commute, the way that we communicate, the way that we basically live our lives. There was a very strong sense of fascination, almost like we were overwhelmed by this technology and we just know that all of the problems that we have had throughout history can be resolved by technology. So, there was some sort of gadget fascination, if you like, with the technologies. However, gradually it feels like we are growing out of that fascination only and we are thinking about tailoring digitally-enabled solutions for the problems that we really have, rather than just using them for the sake of them being sexy, or new, or basically the buzzword of the day.
Sandra: So still there seems to be quite a fascination even today with the promise of technology, with the promise of the Internet of Things, or with the promise of algorithms and artificial intelligence or other digitally-enabled solutions. So, to what extent are smart city initiatives today being led by strategic thinking or planning, versus being led by the technologies themselves?
Tooran: As I said, the term was initiated by corporations and they still play a very strong role in where it is heading. They are still major players in this debate, and they are not going anywhere. That's another thing that we have to be realistic about, because they are investing so much in it that shows that they are here for the long haul. One thing that I like to remind ourselves is that a smart city originally is thought of as a niche issue, an issue or an opportunity that was there for a few branded cities around the world. You know, places like New York or maybe Barcelona, maybe even Paris or London. But we have moved on from those days. My recent research shows that actually when you look at even IBM's Smarter City Challenge that started in 2011, it shows that in the scope of five years this challenge has now attracted over 100 cities from all five continents in the world. And what makes it more interesting is that more than 50% of these cities who are part of this challenge, who have opened their doors to IBM, are what we traditionally describe as 'small to mid-sized cities'. And that is usually a time that someone like me, someone who has interest in cities, an urbanist planner or even designer pays attention. Because we usually say that when an issue is the issue of those few branded cities it's the sexy issue, it's not mainstream issue. But as soon as you have an issue that becomes mid-sized cities issue, becomes small cities issues, it is mainstream planning. Okay, so that is the time that planners even if they hadn't previously paid attention think that - okay this is our business, this is our deal.
Sandra: So, what do you see as the role of corporations today? They were quite influential in starting up this initiative. What role do they play today?
Tooran: They're not going away. Instead of wishing for a day that they disappear or they leave cities alone, I think that we should actually think about enabling and empowering our city governments to play a real role. Basically, start having what can be described as real private/public partnership because that is what is missing in this business. What we have to acknowledge is that while we question the vested interests of corporations like IBM, like Cisco, like Google, we cannot easily dismiss hundreds of cities around the world who have collaborated with these corporations. The reason that these cities have collaborated, part of it might be like due to neo-liberalism, to the concept of competition for the sake of competition, but it's deeper than that. There are issues, there are challenges that these cities believe that digitally-enabled solution can help them to tackle them. So, it is important to empower our urban governments and give them the self-confidence that they are missing or they have been missing for quite some time in this game. I mean I always say that "yes, it is true, we don't know where it is heading, we don't know that the end game is". No one knows. Even these corporations don't know, even the IT specialists don't know, no-one knows. But when it comes to smart cities I like to believe that we know where to start, and that start needs to be about cities, needs to be about the major urban challenges and opportunities of each and every city which was there before the digital day, which was there and is still there. And then we can take that problem or we can take that core identity of the city to the smart city basically experts and tell them "how can you help me to shine better, how can you help me to resolve this ongoing issue of this city". And bear in mind that cities are very very complex phenomena. There is one thing that corporations need to get out of their mind. They are after universal solutions. They think that they can produce a package and sell to Barcelona, and sell to Kabul, and sell to Baghdad, and then sell to Sydney and then sell to Milan and be fine. That is impossible. Because as planners, as urbanists, we've been there, we've tried that. There is no one universal solution that fits to every city's package. A smart city solution, a smart city package, a smart city effort need to ask at start what is the core of each city? What the end game is, I don't know. They don't know either. But at least I like to believe that the beginning point needs to be about each city, and not the technology.
Sandra: So how does urban planning come into this, and how can we ensure that some of these things that are emerging out of this trend will really stick rather than be this one-time solution that looked great at the moment but then went nowhere?
Tooran: I love that you use the word 'stick', because actually that is what came up when I was looking at quite a few cities that had put these policies called 'urban digital strategies'. And their question around these strategies was that cities didn't have digital strategies, that is basically a new piece of document. But businesses, especially major businesses like insurance companies, like banks, they had digital strategies for quite a few decades. If you think of all of your life, the part that is most digital is usually the way that you deal with your banks, the way that you deal with your insurances, they were a few steps ahead of the game. So, what happened was that in case of these cities most of them ended up actually recruiting the people who were the head of digital strategy of major banks, major insurances, and they told them that "yeah, we want to do the same for cities". So those people, they're very smart so what they did was they got a copy of their digital strategy that was produced for Commonwealth, for Suncorp, for any of these major companies, and you know instead of the word 'Commonwealth', they said "find 'Commonwealth', replace it with Vancouver, with Brisbane, we'll be fine". And the problem was that then you end up with these generic urban digital strategies, that the one that was produced for Vancouver looked really not much different from the one that was produced for Brisbane, or the one that was produced even for New York. And that's the question, because these generic urban digital strategies are not going to 'stick' to a city. So, you might ask how this sort it out. I go back to my earlier point, it's about the core priority of a city. Just to give you an example: Vancouver's urban digital strategy was produced around the same time that Vancouver was working on a couple of other strategies. One that I love the most is what they called the 'Greenest' strategy. In this day and age every city that can be compared with Vancouver has some sort of environmental, sustainable or you know green strategy, but they want it to be greenest by 2020, okay. They wanted to be number one in the world. So, you would think that everything else in that city has to work to be greenest. The disappointing part was that their urban digital strategy did not have a single line on being green, let alone greenest. That is what I'm talking about. These urban strategies or smart city strategies not sticking to the context that they are produced for.
Sandra: You talked about 'greenest', and a lot of these narratives around smart cities are really positive, narratives of promise, of how great things will be. Is there a dark side to smart cities?
Tooran: You know they are positive because one thing that cannot be questioned about these corporations is that they know how to do marketing, don't they? And that's basically what they've been doing with the smart cities. The reality is that I don't think that there is anything that is completely white or black in this world, everything is in the grey area. So, when it comes to the dark side, of course there is a dark side, and the dark side is around the role of the corporation. There is such a thing as corporate smart cities that is known to be, whether we like it or not, the dominant actually, practice of the smart city initiatives. Even the European Union at some point tried to put funding and financial support behind their smart city initiatives. So, in a sense they wanted to compete with what was otherwise a very much corporate vision. But even look at where the European cities ended up. They actually ended up hiring the same corporate to do their job for them. So, there is a question about if we are losing governance, and we're talking about elective governments. They might not be perfect, but at the end of the day as citizens, at least in democratic societies, we have a right to get them in, to get them out. We have no right over corporations. There is a question if we are losing our elected governments to corporations, because there's been this idea and this critical line of scholarship about cities losing their voice to corporations. We talked about for example IBM's Smarter City Challenge. The reality is that the beginning of the question that cities put forward for IBM might have been different, but in most cases the solution was to buy this and this and this and that package of IBM, and what that usually means is that if you start your business with IBM you're actually stuck with IBM for a long time. So, in a sense there is a very serious worry about where is enough, you know where is it that governments (and especially in these cases there is a reason that we use the words 'smart cities' because we're talking about urban governments and city governments), the ones that in many cases, especially in mid-size and in small-size cities, don't have the biggest financial resources. And that is why they actually opened their doors to corporations, because they offer supposedly fee-free services or free consultancy services. And the question is, is there a place that urban governments need to draw the line and say that this is the furthest that we are willing to open our doors and share our data and give certain corporations privilege. And this question has been asked more strongly in case of IBM and Google. IBM because of IBM's Smarter City Challenge and Google because of Google Fibre cities. I assume that your audience might be familiar with the two cases but I'll keep it short by saying that IBM was supposedly offering free consultancy services to the cities around the world, while Google Fibre cities were about (again, supposedly) constructing free telecommunication infrastructure - the fastest version ever available in the world - up to 100 times faster than anything that, you know, you could dream of. So, that's huge. And then there is a question about okay that sounds too good to be true. And they were too good to be true. The problem is that, when is that core criteria for cities? And I've asked that question specifically in my research when I was looking at Google Fibre cities because it's too tempting to tell cities that "do not go for free telecommunication". So, it's about the criteria, and the criteria that I ended up basically putting together was about the very golden concept of equity. The cities need to have equity at the core of their dealings with corporations, whether it is about equity of access for their citizens. Basically, make sure that if it is about high-speed broadband access or if it is about certain digital facilities, digital services, it is something that will be offered to all members of the society not necessarily the haves, not necessarily they better-offs. Because if government is putting their hand or if they are basically making it part of their business, they have a responsibility to all of their citizens regardless of the size of their pocket. Corporations might have a different dealing, but governments have this responsibility. But the equity is not just about dealing with citizens. I actually think that there is another dimension to equity that has been pretty much ignored. And that second side to equity is about the equity of governments dealing with corporations. What I mean is that in the case of Google Fibre cities what local governments did was that they gave Google, for example, free access to some of their existing fibres on the ground, the ones that they weren't fully using. They gave them access to their buildings, to their services, they for example assigned someone to take care of every single permission that they needed, you know out of any order. So, you know all of those things that you can easily call them privilege. And the question is, is local government willing or even in a position to offer the same service to all of the competitions. Because, yes digital market is quite a tight market, but you still have more than one player. Every city that Google Fibre entered, there were actually some providers and remember Google wasn't a telecommunication provider before Google Fibre. So, there were the traditional telecommunication providers that they're actually performing and working in these cities. And the question is that what sort of impact is Google Fibre, or for example IBM, by selling their products or cities are having on their competitions and this is perhaps an impact that wasn't ever seen before. Basically, local governments are impacting on the market in a way that they didn't intend, by favouring one big corporations against their competitors.
Sandra: Is there a risk of this actually getting worse or cities not being able to respond to this anymore? If we talk about algorithms or artificial intelligence for instance, we've got Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Alphabet or Google, really ahead of the race in some of these things and no real competition behind them. If we look at China for instance we have Baidu, and Alibaba and Tencent so far ahead that they are the only ones in place to even offer some of these services. And in AI for instance, the government even in the US is finding it quite hard to keep up the pace with that research. Will there be a point where these companies might have too much power?
Tooran: There is a very strong chance that we might be already even there.
Sandra: Or the Hyperloop with Elon Musk.
Tooran: Yes, yes but that is why I'm actually encouraging governments to think about concept of equity. And there are areas that we already know how to achieve equity. There might be areas because as I said this technology is vastly beyond anyone's imagination, you know that we don't know. But at least if we put the question on the table then we can talk about it. For example, in case of telecommunication infrastructure and Google Fibre, the solution is not actually that difficult, the solution is open access. That is what was part of even the original deal for the Google Fibre cities, which is quite interesting. The original deal for the very first Google Fibre city included open access but Google went into it, dived into it, did a spend, you know quite a bit of money, and then went back and said "Nope, it's not going to work out. It's not going to be profitable enough". And the city backed out of it. That is what I'm talking about. So, there should be something that we call as the fine line. There should be something that you know the city governments put their ground firmly and say that this is what they are not backing off. And giving monopoly power to Google versus APT versus all other telecommunication providers in the U.S. should be one of them.
Sandra: So, this is really about putting cities back into smart cities.
Tooran: Of course. I mean as I said it's about reminding ourselves that smart cities are cities. They're not just technological testbeds, because when we look at cities as technological testbeds we are forgetting about very very very very I could say another 100 'very' important rule of people. If cities were, you know, the place for people, smart cities should be the place for people as well. So, what we have learned over decades, if not centuries, about how to manage and how to run our cities, should still be a very important part of this argument. I guess part of the confusion here is that cities were not really the subject of interest for IT specialists, for digital firms, for corporations, so I don't know, maybe they thought that because they weren't thinking about them no one else was either. I have news for them. Planners, urban designers, urban managers, they were thinking about cities for quite long time, and they need to be part of this game. Part of the problem is that because of the very fast-growing nature of this technology I think even planners have lost confidence in their role, and they have basically set the scene to be taken over by IT specialists. But then we ended up in some messy situations like some of the out-of-scratch smart city projects in far-east Asia that look like something that comes out of sci-tech movie, you know, somewhere that no person want to live.
Sandra: We're recording this in Sydney, in Australia. So, Sydney is city with a lot of tradition, when will we know whether we're living in a smart city?
Tooran: Okay that's actually quite an interesting question, but it takes us back to the very beginning of our conversation because we talked about the fact that there is no universally agreed definition for smart cities. They have been actually quite a few different ways of measuring a 'smartification', if you like. But the problem is that every one of those measurements depends on the definition behind a smart city. So, if you have a very technocratic definition of smart cities, the technical success is what you are measuring for, and then you might lose sight of the importance of human capital, the importance of privacy, the importance of citizen freedom and basically personal spaces in your smartification debate. If you account for a more multi-dimensional definition of smart cities that hopefully you will account for the human capital part, but then it becomes more difficult. I guess one of the reason that there is still more efforts around the technical definition is that it's less complex, let's be honest.
Sandra: How would we measure the people side of the equation, the human capital?
Tooran: There is no quantitative measure that is again universally agreed or universally accredited, if you like. And part of the reason is that some of these human capital variables are more difficult to be quantified. So, what we are moving toward, is putting multi-dimensional frameworks of smart cities and have a combination of qualitative versus quantitative ones. And again, part of the argument is that no recipe works for everyone and there is no panacea, if you like. And each city, based on their own contexts, based on their own tradition, based on their existing condition, have to find their way. One thing that I like to actually remind ourselves is that a smart city is not a product - a smart city is a process. So, you could always assess about how far you are in the process of being smart, but there is no real universal destination that we all want to reach.
Sandra: But it's a journey that we all want to embark on.
Tooran: Of course, of course.
Sandra: Thank you so much for talking to us today.
Tooran: No problem, it was a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
Dallas: Hi, I'm Dallas Rogers from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning and we've got a new podcast series called City Road podcast that is coming out very soon. We're launching the podcast on the 31st of July at the Festival of Urbanism.
Sandra: So, if you enjoyed this topic make sure to listen in. The link is in our show notes.
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