The term Smart Cities is typically associated with the image of sophisticated technological cities with data-driven solutions and highly efficient service delivery. This concept originally gained traction at the beginning of 2000s during a period of “technological push” where global IT companies sought to test and deploy digital solutions in urban environments around the world, promoting them as “smart solutions.”
However, in recent years there has been a tendency to expand the concept of the Smart City, with the increased importance of innovation and sustainability alongside the use of technology. Nowadays, traditional smart cities are exploring a variety of agile pathways that are not always technologically based to help improve the lives of their residents. For instance, tactical urbanism has been increasingly utilized to explore new citizen-centric designs that prioritise urban issues and pedestrian spaces, as well as nature-based solutions that increase resilience to natural disasters.
This approach emphasizes the incorporation of the citizen as a key actor into the urban narrative, and puts it at its centre. At the end, any smart city project is a public policy initiative that needs to generate positive impacts on the lives of residents. Instead of adopting a prescriptive approach for the sake of incorporating technology into policy, this actual notion of smart cities is conversely more focused on exploring new ways of solving problems, enabling policymakers to concentrate on practical solutions that work for urban residents.
Smart cities focus on the problem and utilize resources at hand
Cities confront a variety of common challenges, including urban resilience, ensuring equitable access to city services and improving urban mobility or waste management, just to name a few. Substantial investments are necessary to build adequate infrastructures that will help to address these challenges in future years, with city officials needing to make strategic choices and thinking long term to choose the best way forward.
However, these challenges also need to be addressed in the present. Air pollution, natural disasters, excessive plastic waste, or social inequalities are happening now, so cities must also find ways to address these issues with the existing resources that they have at hand. While for some cities it will be easy to rely on the extensive use of city data or digital infrastructures, for others it will be smarter to explore behavioural change approaches, look for community and locally developed solutions or rely on frugal, yet effective technologies that are better adapted to local contexts and less costly to implement and maintain.
In this context, adopting innovative approaches to solve specific problems is of utmost importance. Cities need to look for new ways of approaching challenges that might not have been considered earlier, ideating new solutions that work in localized contexts, sourcing inspiration from peers, adapting what has worked elsewhere and, in short, be open to experimentation with different solutions before scaling them up.
Four different types of smart urban innovations
Depending on the tools and the leading actor, smart urban innovations can take different forms.
In a recent initiative conducted by the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development and Dalberg, more than forty innovations that had generated positive impacts in cities across the world were analysed. All these innovations strategically utilize resources that each city has available in their context, such as existing infrastructures, innovative financing mechanisms, frontier or frugal technologies, or existing data, while also building on dynamic collaborations between community, private sector and public actors.
Depending on the use of the various resources and roles assumed by the different actors, it is possible to identify four different types of smart urban innovations. One city could resort to different types of innovations, leveraging different resources and capacities from local actors and the local context.
For instance, to address challenges related to urban mobility, cities can look at different types of innovations depending on what is more suitable for them. In the case of Singapore, one of the most prominent innovations is the ambitious project of the City Digital Twin that was conceptualised and promoted by public agencies following the ambitious vision to generate an exact digital replica of the city. Singapore has been testing several solutions with this system such as the signalling system of some underground lines. This kind of smart urban innovation is labelled as Tech Driven State Pioneer and is characterised for being developed under the leadership of public authorities, requiring important financial resources to deploy new infrastructures, systems, and using frontier technologies.
However, there are also other public sector driven innovations with high transformative impact that are non-technological, such as the development of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Curitiba in the 70s, which essentially created fast lanes for public buses in the city against the impossibility of funding metro line construction. Innovations like this one are labelled as Pragmatic State Pioneers, as they rely on frugal approaches and on leveraging existing infrastructures. The BRT system in Curitiba was the first in the world of its kind and has since been replicated in a variety of cities across different regions.
The private sector, and particularly companies that invest in the development of new technology-driven solutions, can also be a leading force for impactful innovations. In the case of the innovations following theEnterprise Venture type, companies that invest in innovative products can develop collaborative relationships with public sector actors to tailor their designs to the public requirements. The result is an innovative technological product that uses aggregated city data, often building innovative partnerships and solving practical needs of the city. An example could be the use of Waze, a Google-owned driving and directions tools in the U.S. city of Boston. The tool helped city officials to make private car mobility easier for drivers and reduce traffic jams, while the platform accessed reliable and updated traffic information from the city to improve its service, attracting more users to the platform.
Sometimes, the private sector and public authorities are just enablers or supporting partners of equally impactful smart urban innovations that are led by the communities themselves, social entrepreneurs, or non-profit actors. These solutions tend to be less intensive in financial resources or technology but are extremely successful in generating positive outcomes, thanks to the deep knowledge of the local context that leading actors can provide, combined with the positive support received from public authorities or the private sector.
Take as an example how community actors, or more specifically, researchers and volunteers, innovated to address the confusion of lines and timetables of matatus, the informal transportation minibuses of Nairobi. Using simple GPS trackers, volunteers tracked and mapped over 130 matatu routes and stops, creating an integrated map available on Google Maps. This type of innovation is labelled as Community Organiser, where citizens or non-profit actors create new services or products that improve the services available in the city, using the technologies and resources available. The public sector can support these initiatives in facilitating the implementation of the project, scaling up the solution, or financing some of its activities.
Finally, discreet for-profit initiatives can also generate and implement solutions that provide positive benefits for the city. The last type of smart urban innovation that was identified is the Frugal Innovators, where local social entrepreneurs, start-ups or private companies ideate and promote innovative solutions that, besides generating revenues, are also instrumental in increasing the well-being of residents. One key example would be the app NINA in the city of Fortaleza, in Brazil. NINA is a digital platform to report sexual harassment in public transportation that has grown from an app created by a young woman in a contest, to a company managing response services to public harassment complaints. Public authorities saw the potential of the app and integrated it into its video surveillance systems and public transportation platforms, drastically increasing its outreach and impact.
Smart Urban Innovations are adapted to the local context and build on partnerships
The conception and implementation of smart urban solutions rely largely on the capacity of the different actors to lead and partner together to implement innovative projects. Their success builds on how the knowledge and capacities of each of these actors have merged to create a solution that is adapted to the local context.
Policymakers need to assess which is the best role that they can play to promote these innovations, adapt best practices to their context and not be afraid of experimenting with innovative approaches to solve new and old problems. A city becomes smart when it solves the challenges of their citizens, and as new challenges emerge, it needs to learn how to adapt to different roles, technologies and methods to continue being efficient and providing the best services for its residents.
For more information on the Smart Urban Innovations framework and archetypes, visit the UNDP Global Centre’s dedicated website.