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With enough sensors and data processing power it is theoretically possible to understand almost every problem, conflict and desire in a city. From that point it is simply a matter of implementing solutions that best serve those elements. There is space for innovation at every level and as new technology emerges it provides new opportunities for improvement. Enacting and staying on top of all these aspects would create the perfect smart city, theoretically.

In reality, things are very different. A number of issues, not least cost and privacy, prevent the omnipresence of sensor technology, meaning data used to plan a smart city is incomplete. Implementation of solutions and strategies is inevitably tied up in bureaucracy, often misrepresents the desires of the citizens and is usually burdened by cost. The smart city may promise to create urban utopias but the reality is that cities are creating almost as many problems as they are solving in the pursuit of smartness.

What about well-funded greenfield smart city projects? Surely a city built from scratch has the potential to achieve some form of “perfection”. Such projects provide a blank canvas upon which to design the most beautiful, efficient, and citizen friendly urban visions.

With good planning no home need be more than 10 minutes walk from public transportation that will connect them efficiently to anywhere in the city. Roads can be made as big as they need to be in order to avoid congestion, carefully designed cycle and pedestrian routes can further reduce traffic. Public and private organizations can exist in an environment that allows them to better serving their communities.

On paper, greenfield smart cities could be designed to be as perfect as we can possibly construct. In reality, the opposite might be true. The perfect smart city is the one that best serves its citizens; greenfield smart cities know less about their citizens than any existing city. The municipal government may be providing certain services and incentives to attract certain types of people, but criteria would unlikely look beyond age, affluence or profession.

“A common complaint about greenfield smart city deployments is that they’re antiseptic — they lack character. When cities are designed and deployed as a single unit, they don’t carry the cultural vibrancy of a city built organically in response to the needs and desires of its denizens,” says Tyler Edell, technical marketing manager at San Francisco based developer relations company Oppkey.

Greenfield planning is based on assumptions that “if we build it, they will come,” and hope that they will use the city the way it was intended. While a pre-planned urban area will have a strong influence on the lives of its citizens, those inhabitants will have the final say on how a city is used, or not used.

Existing cities have a head start. Centuries or even millennia of history and culture have shaped older cities, and while that history may include significant eras of centralized planning, generations of citizens have ultimately been the driving force. These cities have organic qualities that greenfield cities struggle to reproduce; a city needs time to form its character, you cannot effectively design an identity. Adding smartness to make an established city better however, is not that straightforward.

In 2016, Forbes listed New York, London and Paris as the world’s three smartest cities. For the same year, Forbes listed Melbourne, Vienna and Vancouver as the three most livable cities. Smartness does not necessarily mean better, and our pursuit of smartness maybe distracting from our goal of improving our cities for their citizens. It doesn’t have to be this way, smart technology can improve a city but the mindset around its design must change.

So we can’t assume what a new population will be like in order to design cities perfectly for them. Our sensors and big data processing do not yet have the capacity to understand what existing citizens desire and more sensors is clearly not the only answer. If the perfect city is one that best serves its citizens then the best way to strive for perfection must be through greater citizen engagement.

Smartness should not just imply digital excellence. A city is like a living organism and a smart city should be one that embraces and supports this concept. Technology is just a tool, not a goal in itself. To improve, cities must listen to and engage their citizens.

The perfect city is one that provides a platform for organic growth and fosters a sense of ownership in its population. In doing so, citizens will better understand the limitations of development, they will feel a greater sense of pride in what has been achieved, and it will create an environment in which innovative solutions can emerge from the populations those solutions seek to serve. That is as close to perfection as we can hope to achieve and smart technology is just one tool to help us get there.

Nader Nanjiani, marketing director of IoT at Harman International states, it is critical to “make the citizen the center of the equation and provide an experience that will make living within that city memorable and useful.”

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