The challenges of smart city mobilities

Smart urbanisation is one of the main approaches for cities around the world to realise their social, environmental and economic goals.  Applying the latest ‘smart IT ‘to augment transport, energy, communication and other urban systems and services that underpin everyday life in cities is seen increasingly as necessary and desirable.  However, research shows that there is no such thing as the (singular) smart city.  Instead actually existing smart cities are patchworks of somewhat opportunistic, experimental initiatives distributed across urban areas.  Here, smart city initiatives often aim to simultaneously augment the management of the city in which they are situated and provide opportunities to create smart city solutions which may be exported elsewhere.  Although urban innovations such as policy frames, infrastructure and service designs circulate among cities, the purposive management of such mobilities in pursuit of  impactful, fair and equitable outcomes can be challenging.

Urban planning is littered with initiatives in which city designs (e.g. neighbourhood units) were abstracted from major urban areas, transferred and applied elsewhere.  Here solutions are often imposed on the periphery, which assume an evolutionary relation between the core and periphery (the periphery will experience what the core has in the past) or perhaps a relation of unequal importance, as what happens at the core is much more important and may effect the periphery in some sort of catalysing way.   In both cases the periphery is expected to pay close attention to what happens at the core, but the reverse may not be necessary implying unequal distribution.  And further, there may be significant challenges for urban areas from which exports are to be abstracted for replication and up-scaling elsewhere.  Here the main benefits of smart city initiatives may only manifest in receiving cities, while the city in which the innovation was first developed may experience ‘teething problems’ and poor performance.  Again, implying an unequal distribution.

As austerity in various countries such as the UK continues this opportunistic, experimental governance modality may perpetuate and even extend.  We must learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid the uncritical development, transfer and application of mobile smart urban concepts, i.e. a modular urbanism.  While colonial relations may no longer be explicit notions of core and periphery may be surprisingly obdurate and embodied in notions of lead and follower cities.  Mobile urban solutions embody urban problems and these must resonate with and attend to the needs of the receiving city.  Thus ways to enable policy makers to make good and informed decisions about mobile urban innovations need to be found.  And we also need to think carefully about how cities can develop and initiatives which provide opportunities for outward flows but also contribute to the cities in which they are situated.  Smart initiatives should be able to both benefit the cities in which they are situated and provide exportable solutions which may assist developments in other cities.  Such initiatives are unlikely to be locked in a zero sum game where an increase in local benefit causes a corresponding decline in exportability and vice versa. Various mechanisms such as patents are used to enable firms to appropriate returns on investment in innovation.  Perhaps similar mechanisms can be found for cities to resolve these tensions.

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