Really smart cities ignore Smart City rankings
September's publication of the IMD Smart City Index 2020 led to the usual flurry of news reports with cities variously preening or wringing their hands at the results, such as Dhaka, Helsinki, and Budapest, to name just a few. For those cities that slipped down or, worse still, did not appear at all, we would like to offer some consolation.
The IMD Smart City Index is one of many. In research carried out at UNU-EGOV, we identified more than 25 such indices developed by different organisations with different purposes in mind. Some are developed by researchers trying to measure very specific aspects of smart cities, while some are developed by companies for commercial ends, and others are created by global organisations with developmental goals in mind. The indices gauge a wide range of indicators and consolidate the measures using different methods. What this means is that if your city performs poorly on one index, you may well perform better on another. There is no absolute truth when it comes to smartness.
Indices depend on underlying models of smart cities. These models typically identify a few dimensions of smart cities, such as transport, economy, and infrastructure, and then develop sets of indicators to measure how smartly the city operates in each of those dimensions. For example, the IMD Smart City Index considers five dimensions: health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities, and governance. Which dimensions are considered important and how they are measured determine how cities get ranked, but the model that any particular index uses may not reflect the most important dimensions of city functioning or actual progress in your city.
In fact, it is highly unlikely that any index uses a model that is relevant to your city. The models in use are particularly problematic for cities in developing, low-income contexts. For example, such cities may be most concerned about providing adequate housing or reducing inequalities in service provision. If an index is based on a model that was developed for a developed, high-income context, where something like housing is taken for granted, the chances are that the index will ignore this issue. This means that a city may be making great strides in improving in the dimensions that matter locally, but such efforts will not be reflected in the latest ranking index.
So, while the results of such rankings receive a lot of attention in the press, they have little relevance for how a city should approach becoming smarter. Being a smart city is not about how your city ranks on a smart city index; it is about how well your city is using smart technologies to address the problems that matter and improve its way of functioning. Striving to meet the requirements set by an external standard simply means giving away your city's autonomy.
A news report on Bangladesh's Dhaka city failure in the IMD Smart City ranking makes the point that Dhaka is a very densely populated city where the basic amenities are not adequate. Indeed, one spokesman is quoted as saying that providing services for all at low cost is more important than becoming smart. This comment illustrates the danger that smart city rankings pose by creating a narrow definition of what it means to be smart. The narrow view of smart cities is that they are attractive, modern, high-tech spaces filled with shiny new buildings and slick transportation systems. And this leads many cities to conclude that becoming smart is either not for them or beyond their reach, or even not relevant given the more basic challenges that they must address first. But that view also means that cities which have the most challenging problems and most need the power of smart technologies to address them, do not even try to become smarter. They see smart as something to be tackled after they have gotten to the stage of functioning.
Another way to view smart cities is to see how smart technologies can be used to improve any aspect of the functioning of a city in many innovative and unusual ways. What this means is that any city can—and should—be working towards being smarter, especially those that face the difficult challenges of providing basic services and infrastructure to growing populations with constrained resources. There are very smart solutions being developed and deployed in such cities, the majority of which would not show up in many of the international rankings.
An example of a contextually smart solution is Kabadiwalla Connect, a set of mobile apps that have been developed in India to address urban waste. The goal is to improve the conditions for informal recyclers and to educate people about the need for recycling. Traditional smart waste management solutions focus on the routing of trucks to collect rubbish, automated waste sorting and detecting how full bins are. That approach is fair for small, neat towns in the developed world. In the large, messy cities of the developing world, city waste collection services are usually inadequate; for instance, there are not even enough trucks to go around. Under these conditions, informal recyclers or "pickers" have emerged; these are people who collect, sort and deliver recyclables to collection points. By using technology to support their micro-businesses, it is possible to improve city recycling rates, decrease uncollected waste, and provide a better income for the people.
Work-horse information systems that automate government administration can also be smart. In many cities, poor service delivery results from employees being paid late or not being paid at all. Often, problems arise in manual systems where money must pass through many hands, some of which are dishonest. In Nigeria, the implementation of integrated personnel and payroll systems for government employees resulted in cost savings as "ghost workers" were identified and removed from the payroll, and bank transaction costs were reduced. It also removed payment delays and decreased corruption as more employees received direct payment into their bank accounts, eliminating opportunities for money to go missing. Implementing such information systems can be difficult, but they have the potential for significant improvements in government services.
These kinds of solutions are not sexy. Indeed, they are far from the image of a modern, high-tech city. But they are smart. Implementing such systems can solve real problems in cities, positively affecting the experience of city living for many people. In the process, they build knowledge and skills within the local government, which can be used to develop the next smart solution. When smart cities are understood only as sexy applications of high-tech, money can get diverted into showcase projects that benefit only a small group of the city's residents—which is not very smart.
A really smart city needs to be looking for ways to deal with real problems, determined by their internal planning and monitoring of the state of the city while looking at how smart technology can effectively help. Technology offers many ways to understand city problems better, reduce costs, tailor services to individuals, speed up processes, and improve communication between city stakeholders. Harnessing these capabilities of technology in innovative ways is what it means to be a smart city. Whatever the rankings may say.
Judy Backhouse and Moinul Zaber, are senior academic fellows of United Nations University's Operating Unit on E-governance, Guimares, Portugal.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the researchers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the UNU.