At TM Forum Live! in Nice in May, Chris Cooper will give a presentation and take part in a panel debate on ‘A citizen-centric approach toward a scalable smart city platform‘. In this post, he looks at humanizing smart cities.

“The city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” (Plato)

At this moment in time, there is no such thing as a smart city. Let’s be realistic, the term smart city is still an industry-led exercise.

Some recent research by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that when asked, “What is a smart city?”, most respondents said it’s where the bright kids hang out. Yes, some places are becoming smarter; some places are using information in really cool ways and that is great. But the city itself is still not smart. If it was, we probably would not be gathering for a conference in Nice. We still have a long way to go.

Why, then, after at least 10 years of talking about them is there a dearth of smart cities? For me, the reason is that smart cities have not yet captured the hearts or wallets of the citizens that live in our cities.

This is really important because the citizens are the city. If the citizens are not feeling smart then, the city certainly is not smart.

I would argue, therefore, that smart cities will only be realized when they put the citizen at the center. Make the citizen the focus of the outcome that the city is trying to achieve. This will impact one key motivator of citizens’ behavior: their wallet. It is also about empowering the citizen to make informed decisions that lead to action that is measurable and visible in terms of its impact. This creates engagement and the incentives to use the information wisely. Thus, the citizen evolves into not just being smart but richer too.

How do you make this happen? During my presentation at TM Forum Live! I will talk about the journey that can be taken. The start, however, is the importance of having some principles and a vision. These embody the heart and soul of a place. They are what the citizens in that place want it to be famous for. Note, though, that every place will be different — and that’s brilliant as diversity should be encouraged. The last thing we need is a ‘standard smart city’. Homogenous and soulless.

Where the principles come into their own is that they provide a benchmark for measurement. This then allows citizens to ask… “Does this project meet the principles and vision of our place? If not, then why are we doing it?”

The diagram below is a close-up of the Information Marketplace concept enshrined in the British Standards Institute’s (BSI) PAS181. Note, the citizen is at the center of the model.

Source: BIS

The next step is to bring those principles and vision together. This is where the BSI’s PAS 181 Smart City Interoperability Framework kicks in. PAS 181 provides the framework for participants in a smart city program to know what to expect from each other and why their element supports others.

Another important component of PAS181 is the Information Marketplace concept. Citizen hesitancy in engaging in the digital economy and exchanging personal data for services can be easily resolved with this marketplace. This is because an economic value is exchanged for your data and the citizen stays in control over what data is exchanged.

New tools and innovations are being brought to market that put the citizen front and center. At KnowNow we recently released Consentua, a personal data consent tool. Meeco have their API of Me concept, and new citizen engagement platforms such as Citizen Lab are putting citizens in control over civic data.

Once a city has principles, its citizens have control and a collective vision, the city is now ready to embark on smart projects. The icing on the cake, though, is to put the citizen at the heart of the outcome. Give the citizen something they need, as well as something that will benefit them too. What could this be, though?

From a city perspective, the key systems/silos are often simplistically boiled down to energy, transport, health, public safety and education. The reality is that each is entwined with the other. The complexity is vast and often incomprehensible, but it kind of works. Also, many local authorities are cash-constrained. Any investment will be slim if you’re lucky, so the city council is not going to provide the answer to our smart city project.

That means we need to take a different approach, one that recognizes the complexity yet also provides an economic (wallet) incentive to the citizen. But at the same time, the change needs to keep the existing show on the road, meet expectations and be financed using old-school rules. How, then, can a citizen be at the center, with little funding available?

The answer is to think of this as an evolution, not a revolution. The change will happen street by street, then by district, then across cities. The change will be gradual, uneven and will also come with upheaval in how we deal with each other as well as how we value certain things.

The starting point, I would argue, is smart grid alongside local generation and storage. If done right, domestic providers will have very cheap energy. This, in turn, would subsidize internet connectivity and be the catalyst for local information marketplaces. The twist, however, is to really unlock the value of citizen empowerment and embrace community ownership.

To hear how this is being realized and how there are even more exciting tools and services out there that are making our cities more human-centric, then join me for my presentation at TM Forum Live! I look forward to seeing you there.

Thanks for reading. You can read about our work with smart cities at and connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter.



This article first appeared in TMForum