Historically cities have been established on conservative models, and therefore one of the major challenges when it comes to creating smart cities is to move away from a model rooted in an old approach, and take a different path.

This challenge is not one for cities alone. It spans across every facet of our lives in the 21st century.

I recently attended an event where I was introduced to a stunningly simple product that was essentially a much cheaper, easier to produce (thanks to 3D printing) version of the cochlear implant, which doesn’t require the external microphone, wiring and so on. There was much discussion by the attendees at this event asking, “Why hasn’t Cochlear done this?”

The simple answer is that their whole business model is built around a continued revenue stream firmly grounded in an inflexible approach that relies on selling regular upgrades to their existing software – and it’s a business model they clearly find very hard to move away from.

If we think about this in terms of smart cities, there are many similarities. It is a challenge for cities, governments, communities and businesses to think about things differently, to try a different approach, to invest in the relative “unknown”.

But thanks to some forward thinking and brave people, communities and cities across the globe, we are seeing a groundswell of smart city activity, where boundaries are being pushed, people are thinking outside the lines, and real problems are being solved with relatively simple solutions that have far reaching impact.

And this is the essence of a smart city.

I wrote recently about what I was hoping to see and hear at Smart Cities Week in the Silicon Valley 8-10 May. I find myself a little cynical when it comes to conferences these days, but this event was different. I was really engaged, even with some of the most predictable sessions. And upon reflection I wondered “why?”

Joining city leaders and technological innovators, Smart Cities Week in the Silicon Valley ultimately set out to answer: “What does the next generation of smart cities look like?”

To answer this question is hard. No one knows exactly where we are heading or what our smart cities will definitively look like. But what became clear throughout this event was that by looking at the “now” – the successes, the mistakes – through sharing these stories, we can create a better “what’s next”.

The most useful and interesting contributions were from cities and small towns that were open about their experiences in terms of what didn’t work, as well as what was working.

On the positive side, we heard about a small town of 15,000 people that had introduced an LED street lighting program, and the benefits that brought to the community. Through moving to smart LEDs the lights can flash at the location in an emergency situation, they can go to their brightest, or change colour to alert the community of certain event, such as a shooting, a gas leak, a car crash, a pedestrian crossing and so on. All these things become possible with smart lights through a smart cities approach.

At the recent launch of Swinburne Smart Cities Research Institute (where I chair the advisory board), we heard about a terrific solution the City of Melbourne is introducing across basketball courts located in residential areas. Designed by the city’s industrial design team, the new backboards’ honeycomb panels absorb sound and dampen the noise of the ball when it hits the backboard – making surrounding residents very happy indeed.

“I implore the Swinburne Smart Cities Research Institute to think of – and be inspired by – this simple solution to a real problem, to a real community need, which has improved the lives of those experiencing and living in the city,” City of Melbourne chief digital officer Michelle Fitzgerald said at the launch.

“That’s what a smart city is about.”

The backboard, the LED lights and many more examples are being well-received by communities who are as a result engaging and interacting with their city. A key component of being able to say you have done something for a city is recognition by the community of value, and not just value to the people with an iPhone in their car.

The message coming through loud and clear from Smart Cities Week, and also the launch of Swinburne Smart Cities Research Institute, is that while smart cities are in part about “take your breath away” technology, that’s only just one part of the puzzle. They are as much about people as they are about technical capability.

Likewise I believe that smart cities are about bravery to break from the mould of conformity that has gone before us.

If we want to engage with the community and have the community understand the value of this whole approach, our leaders, policy makers and planners need to move away from old approaches and facilitate interactions that are real and not seen only as “Jetsons” solutions.

We must develop – as a community – our thinking in the smart cities space.

David Singleton is a non-executive director and expert advisor on resilient leadership and practice, specialising in sustainable solutions for the infrastructure and built environment sectors.

Follow him on Twitter: @davidjsingleton

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  1. I applaud this initiative, and the notion that ‘by looking at the “now” – the successes, the mistakes – through sharing these stories, we can create a better “what’s next”’. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: it’s also important to look at the cities of the historic past, which functioned without our massive infrastructure and energy inputs, so that we can create a better future.

    As somebody said, you can’t have ‘smart cities’ without ‘smart people’ – and smart people are just the same dimensions, have the same vision and stride, and have the same basic needs, as they have for the last 50,000 years.

    So I’d prefer to think in terms of readily adaptable and re-purposable cities, than cities with quickly out-of-date technology built in and impossible to upgrade. ‘Nothing ages faster than technology’, as Stewart Brand nearly said.