* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Several years ago in Beyond Smart Cities*, I wrote about cities on the prowl. By the thousands, cities from around the globe are flying every which way, searching like so many hunters and gatherers to learn and share information. By one estimate, the 1,000 cities on the planet that have more than half a million people are engaged in many thousands of exchanges every year. Why so much prowling? It’s much cheaper and less risky to pick up the secrets of success by examining innovations at close range in other cities, where new practices have been tried out, than to reinvent the wheel back home. Nothing has slowed that pace, but some of the consequences of so much international inter-city exchange is smartness that is now appearing in three flavors.
First, cities are learning how to learn. This week, C-40 reported that cities are learning how to design and implement home-grown climate change reforms by picking clues and patterns from each other. In C-40, as with ICLEI and dozens of other special purpose NGOs, new attention is being paid to the learning process. A cottage industry of city-related web-sites, magazines, conferences, and blogs has shot up over the past decade. Atlantic Cities, Cities Today, CitiScope, New City, Sustainable Cities and many more aggregators specialize in pumping out lessons, spotting connections and focusing information on issues, policies and practices. The same is true of city-based membership organizations like CityNet, Global Cities Indicators, ICMA, Metropolis and UCLG. These organizations have always traded in information and knowledge, but the focus and sophistication are on the rise. These make it easier for cities to access and absorb new information.
A second flavor is that cities are learning how to be smart cities. One of the most ubiquitous, if not most popular topics of exchange concerns the high-tech and usually web-based applications that are at the core of smart cities. The prospects can be dazzling. Most involve sensors and feedback, in public spaces, parking spaces, car lanes, water systems, power grids, public lighting, neighborhoods and much more.
Consider autonomous vehicles as a publicly-owned utility. A recent traffic model at the University of Texas showed that autonomous vehicles numbering only a fraction of a city’s total fleet could reduce by an order of magnitude the number of vehicles on the road at any given time. That reduction could also clear the way for amenities in expanded open space and lead to dramatic reductions in accidents and fatalities. In the case of electric utilities, power management ranges from the individual household feeding the grid to smart grids at the regional scale feeding each other and each benefiting from reciprocal flows depending on grid requirements.
All these and other examples to some extent depend on centralized and decentralized elements reading and reacting to each other. We are told that the actions of thousands upon thousands of individuals can be rendered into patterns that can be made sense of, helping both centralized elements of the city—utilities, managers of vehicle fleets and buildings, first responders—to make more informed decisions just as individuals themselves can benefit by making more informed choices, for instance, to avoid congestion, find parking, adjust heating and lighting, or book a car. Most of these examples are already out there, and cities are quickly spreading this second flavor of smartness.
Third, and most important, cities are taking on a new awareness about themselves, a new and potentially transformative smartness: the collective identity of cities on the global scene. One of the by-products of so much city intercourse is the growing awareness among cities that they as individual actors have a vast greenfield of common ground. This terrain is rich in possibilities for cooperative action on many issues of national and global significance. National actions on global issues have proven to be sluggish and disappointing. Meanwhile, cities have made steady progress on a dozen fronts, some modest, others promising. Hundreds of cities have taken comprehensive action on climate change. Many have found novel ways to handle immigration, to set up first lines of defense to prevention of epidemic diseases, to strengthen resilience, and to a lesser extent, to fight poverty and preserve cultural assets. Sooner or later these small bricks will pile up to a more significant edifice of change. In all these flavors of smartness, private industry has shown an eagerness to enter these arenas bringing a fresh sense of possibilities and partnerships in cities that are simply not possible at the national level.
Cities have entered a transformative period of smartness in many flavors. They have shown us that city-to-city learning is alive with possibilities. City-to-city exchange leads to improved learning as well as to smart technologies that can revolutionize the relationships between center and periphery at every scale. Perhaps most intriguing, a new dawning has arrived as cities become cognizant of the benefits of cooperation with each other on problems of global goods.
*Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate. London: Routledge/Earthscan, 2012