Why Planners Haven't Engaged With Smart Cities

... and what we could do about it

19 August 2019

In popular terms the concept of 'Smart Cities' is approximately five years old in Australia (although about ten years old internationally). Despite being ostentatiously about cities, the number of urban planners involved is low, a fact pointed out by Anthony Townsend in their well-known book on the topic back in 2013, and a fact that still rings true here today. It is a fact that, in my experience, has been met with slight confusion from smart cities people. Having thought about this for a while though this fact is not as unreasonable as it first seemed. Here is my take with three reasons why planners haven't engaged with smart cities and what we could do about it.

1. Planning is not real time

So much of smart city innovation and dialogue is based on the concept of the real-time city. Don't get me wrong, this is a useful and important concept; with real time feedback we can divert resources to where they are needed and respond to problems before they get out of hand. However, planners rarely care about real time. Planning work involves shaping policy for outcomes that won't be realised until 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 or more years into the future. To engage as planners we need much more dialogue about how this mountain of real time data can be meaningfully aggregated to help with this work.

2. Planners care about the form and function of cities

In all the conversation around smart devices, a clear message is still lacking around implications for the fundamental form and function of cities. It is great that we can now monitor how full our public bins are, and that we have more wifi in public spaces, but do these things fundamentally change how cities function and develop? And no, again I'm not dismissing smart devices, but to engage fully as planners we need dialogue that goes a few more steps beyond the devices themselves. Does this technology suggest we should fundamentally change the form and function of cities? Is it better for everyone to work from home? Will we still need vast areas of landfill and buffers to separate residential and industrial uses? There are probably lots more important questions to ask, although as it stands the current planning ideal of making sure more people live in areas that are well serviced by mass public transport and other services seems to hold up pretty well.

3. Digital innovation in planning is dependent upon public sector innovation

Planning is principally involved in the governance of land development rights across society and decisions regarding expenditure on public infrastructure. These are functions that are core to government. Smart Cities dialogue started with and continues to be driven to a large degree by IoT and supporting tech service companies in the private sector, whether through testablished tech giants or the many start-ups generated through various recent smart city incubator programs. Much of the smart cities dialogue in Australia has been conducted separately from those involved in the public sector innovation sphere, in which we see strengthening recognition around the value of in-house tech expertise, human-centred rather than profit or convenience centred design, collaborative rather than competitive ways of working and open-source rather than proprietary software solutions. These things are heavily tied up with supporting the ideals of democratic governance and public purpose but can be at odds with many traditional private (and even public) sector business models.

That's all I've got for now. Thoughts anyone? I wouldn't be surprised if a similar blog has been written before and would love to connect with others exploring this space. Hit me up on Twitter @ClaireCities or LinkedIn!

For the 'real time city' and the 'form and function of cities' from an academic perspective see: Michael Batty's and Rob Kitchin's work.