[Tribune] At the occasion of his talk given on the subject of ‘What does a ‘smart’ city really mean? Let’s work for a smart city with a human face’ at the media centre in Châtillon, south of Paris, on 24 October, Carlos Moreno returned to the subject of the city of the future.

How smart is my city? Visions of the smart city in the 21st century

Cities are human agglomerations where people’s needs for the basic essentials of life, for development and self-fulfilment entwine in many different ways. The city is complex in the most literal, etymological sense of the word, derived from the Latin ‘complexus’ = ‘woven together’, ‘intertwined’. Everything in a city is linked – people, their daily habits, infrastructure and services – and this is even more true in the 21st century, where we are seeing huge waves of migration to the towns. In fact, one might say that people, just like the multiple systems which make up a city, only really exist in terms of their links with others. And when we are talking about a large metropolis, we find this complexity on an even greater scale.

In a city we find a vast array of needs, habits, customs, services, flows: food, housing, the environment, transport, education, culture, health, security, communications and so on. Every city evolves in its own way, at its own pace, which will vary from place to place. The context differs from one city to another, whether we’re talking about culture, geopolitics, history or religion, and these aspects help to shape the many characteristics of any individual city and its residents.

But in order to ensure that citizens can live in tune with their surroundings and enjoy decent lives, the city must provide a whole range of services. Our planet now hosts more than 7 billion inhabitants and for the first time since the dawn of mankind more than 50% of them live in towns. The figure for Europe is as high as 77%. In 2030, close to 5 billion of the world’s 8.3 billion inhabitants will be urban dwellers. So humanity as a whole is now facing unprecedented challenges to its very survival. New needs are arising, demanding up-to-date solutions to deal with our changing environment, while at the same time nature itself is under threat, confronting us with situations we have never had to deal with before.

The city: a living system which develops over time

Like all living organisms, cities have to meet two key challenges, which are the very basis of their complexity. The city must on the one hand try to satisfy the essential needs of its inhabitants and their quest for well-being, and on the other ahnd deal with a range of hazards to which it is vulnerable, such as storms, power cuts, fires, epidemics and malicious attacks. A city needs to show resilience, to be able to cope with the unexpected.

Understanding the essentially fragile nature of the city, realising that it is in fact a highly sensitive living environment and coming up with solutions to reduce its vulnerability, including making it lighter and more nimble – these are challenges that will have to be met in the coming years. What we need is smart cities equipped with the right technology to serve citizens.

The digital revolution goes to the heart of all human activities, bringing the phenomenon of unlimited linkage that we see in operation today. This phenomenon, which cuts right across society, is a major source of opportunities to create value in all fields of activity. In order to carry this revolution, and the profound transformation it implies, onwards and upwards, we will however have to reinvent digital. This time our starting point should not be the technology itself, the objects, but the new ways of doing things and new services that they can enable.

Paradigm shift needed: fundamental focus on service design

So we will need a real cultural revolution. The central point is that we need to see interdependent systems in terms of their interactions. Only then will we be able to invent and reinvent, at the right time, uses and services that can transform our lives and create both value, in the economic sense, and values in the moral sense of the word. Online service platforms that allow us to aggregate, enrich, recreate, and contextualise information, are powerful drivers of transformation. These platforms are real meeting spaces where the physical, digital and social worlds converge, and are therefore places where we can learn about how things might be done differently.

So how will all this impact our cities? We’re now just at the beginning of a major trend towards putting technology to use to serve people’s needs and support their way of doing things. This is not only going to create some radically new services and usages but also to shake up the ways towns and cities respond to the essential needs and well-being of the residents and cope with potential hazards.

Anyone and everyone can contribute via the social networks to the process of coming up with ideas for public services and we will no doubt see new ways of living emerge. We’re also witnessing a revolution in the way cities are organised: hierarchical, top-down systems are gradually being called into question, given that with today’s mass, across-the-board dissemination of information anybody can acquire knowledge and skills and take decisions.

City of the future: a horizontal, open, evolving, adaptive ecosystem that enables people to find fulfilment

If we are to meet the challenges of energy provision and consumption while creating zero-carbon cities we will have to make sustainable development a central feature of the city. The city of the future, which we’re building each and every day, will also be driven by the imperative to share and optimise resources. The daily use of new information and communication technologies, which is now a commonplace reality all over the world, has become a necessary component in the process of adapting cities and people’s behaviour to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. The city is becoming more and more interactive and communicative.

The city of tomorrow is becoming more horizontal and collaborative in its organisation. Going beyond the Smart City, what we’re going to see in the future is the Sharing City.


Carlos Moreno