Geodebates II . – Opportunities Offered by Smart Cities

PAGEO held its GeoDebates conference again, focussing on smart cities this time. The main topic of the Debates was whether smart cities are necessary, and what approach should be taken to implement the modern initiative of urban development. What dynamics work between decision makers and residents? How can they provide solutions for urban problems?

Smart Solutions of Modern Problems

In his keynote speech, László Gere, a researcher at PAGEO, summarised the main information about smart cities in an international context. Beyond doubt, cities have an important role in the modern era, thus the question arises whether the new methods of urban planning are able to cure the problems occurring in settlements with high population densities, such as the crisis of public healthcare, expensive housing, difficulties in transport. New participants have appeared in urban development. These technological companies offer “smart” solutions in the fields of economy, environment, energy management, governance, etc. Two examples were presented:  the city of Songdo in South Korea, and Amsterdam Smart City. Although the development of each city is peculiar, they are linked by using the achievements of technology efficiently.

If we suppose that smart cities are useful tools, is their implementation more efficient as a grassroots initiative or through top-down planning? In the debate, János Balázs Kocsis, an assistant professor at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics and Corvinus University, and Klára Szerdahelyi-Németh, founder of Budapest Dialóg, represented the grassroots initiative, while Dávid Vitézy, director of the Museum of Engineering and Transport,  and Samu Szemerey, an architect of  Lechner Knowledge Centre, were advocating top-down planning. Anton Bendarjevsky, director of the foundation contributed as a moderator.


The party representing grassroots initiatives claimed that smart cities of the future cannot exist without considering the needs of local inhabitants, and a thriving city can be built relying on the local civil society. Local inhabitants must be inspired so that a competitive city should be created, thus smart city development must be based on the needs of the cities’ residents and not on technological progress. An example for that is Budapest Dialóg, which collects the ideas of locals and forward them to the local government or other authorities, organisations concerned. In addition to ideas to be implemented, local governments are also given the opportunity to receive feedback on projects published at the planning phase.

The question whether our cities are smart in their current forms arose. There have been many creative cities in history: Budapest, for example, was remarkably developed, just like a smart city, between the two world wars. Smart cities may offer a good solution for today’s ills, but first the problems to be resolved must be assessed.  Applying smart methods is a question of management, and no matter that a plan is fascinating and convincing if its significant costs raise further questions. Being aware of poor and segregated cites, it is a difficult question why it is not the quarters in need that receive the amounts spent on smart cities, since there is a very wide digital gulf between the lower and upper strata of society. Technological giants invest tremendous amounts in cities, and the decision makers’ convictions about their raison d’etre reveal serious interests.

Challenges must be accurately identified, because while the prices of flats are influenced by prestige, a smart method cannot change this. It can hardly alleviate the problems of public healthcare, either, since high costs are inevitable. In a smart city, personalisation could be something of a novelty, but today this area suffers a setback, compared to the previous period. The aim is to have technology as a tool, and experts of sociology could tell the best way of application, highlighting the interests of firms. The top-down planning side fundamentally regards smart cities technocrats, systems of notions governed by the concepts of a few large companies.  All over the world, legislation is best method of urban regulations, which is absolutely natural viewed with a top-down approach.  Through this, the most diverse problems are solved and this is what makes a city “smart”. Furthermore, the concept of smart cites must be natural. By the 21st century, information technology has become ubiquitous, thus it is as necessary to operate a city as laws and electricity are. This is why raising questions must basically be approached along identifying goals.

Technology, however, is a mixed blessing. Mobile parking facilitates parking in the city centre, but conflicts with urban policy, which wants to see as few cars as possible in these areas. Likewise, we can produce smart solutions without technological devices, thus the opportunities of technology must be put in their right place, and the goals of our urban policy must not be subordinated to them.  Top-down and bottom-up initiatives are both needed; one is useless without the other. Particular systems, such as public utilities, do not work bottom-up but local solutions may have a considerable role in the development of systems. In Budapest, it currently works the other way round: it is easier to make a major change from the bottom, from investors than fulfilling, even with a top-down approach, the needs of the inhabitants of an urban area. Smart cities should be created to enable us to protect historic urban areas with grassroots initiatives. Technology, however, will pose newer and newer challenges, such as the spread of self-driving cars, which may impact public transport and cause public health problems – and this is definitely the responsibility of legislation from above.

High level of global urbanisation is a popular argument in the development of smart cities; however, the fact that European and North American cities do not grow but age, opposed to dynamically developing East Asian cities, is a more important one. Therefore, it is not sensible to talk about smart cities in themselves, without regional characteristics. The potentials of city types must be considered to identify problems and opportunities. It is an essential interest of a city’s leadership to understand digital transformation, and the task it entails for them.  Most cities in Hungary are not aware of the data they possess and they cannot use them. It is also necessary to assess liabilities and potential sources of incomes. Local governments must transform in order to be competent in this field, and they must understand the role that data have.

The other question is economic sustainability. For a sustainable operation, the involvement of market participants is required, because innovations and competitiveness lie with them. In order to be able to interpret development in the cases of smaller settlements and lagging regions, marketable units must be covered. It requires alliances of local governments, and the network of settlements can be operated in a compatible system coordinated from above. Local governments may aim, as market participants, to sell their well-operating developments, and it requires top-down management.

Cities In Rankings and Budapest

The first question of the moderator raised modern city rankings, such as Juniper’s, according to which top ranking smart cities for 2016 are Singapore, Barcelona, London, San Francisco and Oslo. What are the differences between the cities from continent to continent, from culture to culture, and where can Budapest be located in this ranking?

Singapore is a template of top-down planning, but it is intelligent legislation, and not technology, that makes it a smart city. Decisions of public policy are programmed and executed, for example, the number of cars is limited according to the issue of number plates, and congestion charge works according to programs, traffic influences the routes that are chosen by people. The most difficult part is policy: it requires long-term strategical thinking. In this respect, many European cities do fairly well, because we have a strong cultural base, regarding the traditions of transport in Budapest, for example.  It depends on the current policies of historically smart cities whether they remain smart. Historically, the United States have started from a mush worse status. They are trying to transform their cities, for example Seattle and Los Angeles through public transport development projects, which have been adopted by referendums with great majorities. They may correct earlier, inadequate urban policies, for example, that of Los Angeles, created by the automobile lobby.

Advocates of grassroots initiatives think that living in cities has become fashionable, that is why we also speak about smart cities. City rankings merely reflect trends, and it would be surprising to have another city on top instead of Singapore.  But this does not mean that these are functioning cities. Budapest does not perform badly at all, is characterised by a strong civilian background and vibe. Residents read a lot about urbanisation, and the interesting thing is how we can channel grassroots initiatives. When talking about smart cities, it is important to talk about existing development and organizing tools – regulation, tendering, institutions – as well. Looking at these through different eyes, and applying them with a different approach – these in themselves make the city smarter. A good example is Budapest and the Térköz tender, an urban rehabilitation programme in 2013: it supports only applications that are based on grassroots initiatives.

It is worth examining the political cultures in which smart cities develop rapidly. In India, for example, a government’s policy can be built on developing 100 smart cities in 5 years, and in Singapore top-down developments play a great role. In these countries, top-down initiatives have a much stronger impact, and there is much less room for mediation, in which the opinions of citizens are considered. In this respect, Europe is in a more difficult situation, because such concept cannot be implemented against voters. Copenhagen is on top of liveability rankings: it has taken years to make residents stakeholders, actively participate in urban development. And this is not the result of a new application or a network of sensors, but of a long learning process and confidence-building. Thus, the key is not technology but the development of society’s strength.

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