Smart cities or resilient cities. Does it make any difference?

Resilient city

Worldwide 55 percent of all people is living in cities. They cover 4 percent of the landsurface, use 67 percent of all energy that is produced and are responsible for 70 percent of the emission of greenhouse gasses. Cities are not only the most important economic centres of the world, their political power is also increasing. Observers believe that growing sustainability will result in the first place from policies issued by the world’s largest cities instead of by national governments.

In order to express their intentions, many cities showcase themselves with adjectives such as ‘smart’, resilient’, sustainable’, ‘sharing’ and the like. These predicates refer to results that already have been accomplished, however small, but they express their mission for the future in the first place.

An inventory of current literature (1) resulted in more then 30 definitions of smart city. Most cited (348 times) is the definition of Caragliu (2009): ‘We believe a city to be smart when investments in human and social capital and and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance.’


The first appearance of the concept resilience in connection with urban policy dates back to  2002. However, only in 2012 the frequency of searches in Google for resilient city started to boom.

In contrast with smart city, the number of definitions of resilient city is limited. Cities who call themselves resilient, like Rotterdam and The Hague in The Netherlands, claim to build capacity within individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.

Chronic stresses weaken the fabric of a city on a daily or cyclical basis. Examples include: high unemployment, overcrowded or inefficient public transportation systems, endemic violence and chronic food and water shortages. Acute shocks are sudden, sharp events that threaten a city. Examples include earthquakes, floods, disease outbreaks and terrorist attacks.

The concepts smart and resilient city have different roots. Large technology companies, like Cisco, IBM, Siemens, Philips started promoting to become a smart city expert ten years ago during the economic crisis as part of their strategy to find new markers and to attract new customers.

The use of the concept resilient city is promoted by international organizations and associations of cities in order to improve city’s capabilities to deal with hazards like the hurricanes Katarina in the New Orleans region (2005) and Sandy along the eastcoast of North America (2012).

As evidenced in the definition mentioned above, the concept hazard has been broadened to include external pressures in general, varying from climate change and environmental degradation to poverty and traffic congestion.

The concept smart city has also evolved. In another article I made a distinction between smart city 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. These descriptions mark the evolution from the mere accentuation of the deployment of ICT as a key tool to fuel economic growth and competitiveness, to a multi-objective and participatory strategy capable to tackle problems of environmental deterioration, social equity and inclusion and building social capital. 

The Resilient City Movement has been boosted in 2014 when the Rockefeller Foundation invested $100 million in the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge. Partly because its institutionalization, the policies of the cities partnering in the 100 Resilient City Challenge have more in common than those of the self appointed smart cities. The so-called City Resilience Framework, plays a key role in each of the participating city’s strategy.

The city Resilience framework

Based upon this framework, an index has been developed. Cities can calculate an indicator of their resilience with respect to the topics mentioned above and subsequently develop a strategy to improve weak points. The result of the analysis made in Rotterdam is indicated below. At this time 30 cities have published strategy reports to increase their resilience in the next decade. Among them are Rotterdam and Athens, a city that came with a brilliantly elaborated action report. A brand new report, Cities taking Action, written on occasion of the World Summit in July 2017, offers an anthology of what has been reached during the recent past within a selection of the 100 participating cities.

An analysis of definitions of smart and resilient cities and of characteristics attributed to each of these concepts is revealing a very broad overlap as is demonstrated in the box below.

As a consequence, some publications consider resilience as a characteristic of smart cities. Others believe that resilience will replace smart. I am not in favor of the assimilation of one of these terms by the other. Both concept have there own roots and are on their way to become meaningful for citizens. Therefore, they better can be treated as comparable, as is understood well by one of the platforms. Otherwise, the City Resilience Framework is an extremely useful policy making tool for smart cities because of its high level of elaboration.

Taking into account the convergence of definitions, both smart and resilient cities are building capabilities to deal with and prevent chronic stress and acute shocks, deploying a broad range of technologies. They enable individuals, communities, institutions and businesses to participate in the definition and execution of policies. They invest in the growth of human and social capital by education, meaningful work, communing, and sharing, and including all of its citizens to live in a decent way.

This is the 5th episode in a series of 6 articles about smart cities and the like. This article has already been publicised in the Smart City Hub


[1] Resilient cities: A systematic approach for developing cross-sectoral strategies in the face of climate change: Rocco Papa. Adrina Galderisi, Maria Christina Vigo Majello, Erica Saretta. in: TeMA Journal of Land Use Mobility and Environment 1 (2015)


How Google connects with the smart city movement

Whatever we do, we know the world doesn’t need another plan that falls into the same trap as previous ones: treating the city as a high-tech island rather than a place that reflects the personality of its local population’.
These words are from Daniel Doctoroff. In 2016 Larry Page (Google) invited him to be chairman/CEO of a new Alphabet enterprise, Sidewalks Labs. This company aims contributing to the transformation of urban environments through technologies that can drive efficiency, raise accountability, and foster a deeper sense of community. In others words, connecting Google’s expertise to the Smart City movement.

Choosing Doctoroff as obvious. He was deputy mayor for city development in the Bloomberg administration. He is deeply concerned with the problems of American cities and at the same time he believes in the power of science and technology to solve them. In his view the Fourth Technological Revolution will integrate five core technologies:

  • ubiquitous connectivism
  • sensing
  • social networks
  • computer power
  • robotics.

Deployed together, these technologies will significantly decrease mobility costs for citizens and for the community at large as well, personalize services and improve safety.

Technologists and urbanists

The ultimate aim is improving the quality of life in cities and not the deployment of technology as such. Therefore Doctoroff carefully staffed Sidewalks Labs with technologists and urbanists. In his words, the first group is in general insensitive to the complexities of cities. The second group does not understand technology: Protecting the social fabric of cities comes first. Both groups talk different languages and do not communicate. Doctoroff believes that their successful collaboration can make the difference between Sidewalk Labs and technology-driven Smart City initiatives. 

Shortening decision making

It is too early to judge whether Sidewalk Labs will fulfill these promises. The published research so far (a couple of titles is shown in this article) shows a great deal of involvement in the problems of the American cities, like the crumbling infrastructure, the lack of accessible health care, and the unaffordability of housing. The modeling of these problems, taking into account realistic population data, enables fast simulations of the impact of solutions and thus shortening of length of the decision making process. This research has revealed ingenious redesign of the public transport network, new models of integrated heath care and proposals that might significantly lower construction costs.

The implementation of solutions

Labs does not limit itself to figuring out solutions; the company is also taking care of their implementation by creating start-ups. For instance, Flow is mapping traffic and (public) transport pattern to optimize networks and thus meaningfully increasing mobility. Link NYC is replacing the 7000 payphones with super-fast free Wi-Fi hubs, paid by advertising on the large hub displays.

In its health care research Sidewalk Labs made clear that most medical problems have social and environmental roots, for instance bad food habits and air pollution. At the same time health care in the US is more expensive than in any other OECD country and its quality, accessibility in particular, is unsatisfying. When it comes to solutions, Sidewalk Labs is focusing on e-health, for instance monitoring patients and consulting physicians at distance.

Mismatch between definition of problems and that of solutions?

At  this point I became aware of a growing feeling of discomfort with the strategy of Sidewalk Labs. 
Labs is brilliant in the realm of defining and modeling problems, freed from any reductionist bias. However, its search for solutions is technology-focused, for instance apps that offer real time affordable solutions for renting apartments or apps that shows vacant parking lots. Not to mention the free Wi-Fi facilities in New York. Flaws in the Smart City approach result partly from a technological bias in the definition of problems. Sidewalk Labs definitely cannot be blamed in this respect. But it fails to integrate technical and non-technical approaches in the the solution of problems. Exactly this is corresponding with distinction between Smart City 2.0 and Smart City 3.0 that I made recently.

I assume that the focus on technological solutions in inherent in Sidewalks Lab’s connection with Alphabet. The ultimate ambition of Sidewalks Labs is to reimagine cities from the Internet up. That is why Alphabet has created the company. In the end, Sidewalks Labs’ mission is paving the way for new services to develop or to deliver by Google.
However, cities, their administrators and inhabitants are yearning comprehensive solutions for their problems. These solutions demand an integrated approach deploying high-tech, low-tech and also no-tech solutions. Here Sidewalks Labs falls short, in spite of Daniel Doctoroff inspiring citation above. Probably ongoing discussion between the technologists and the urbanists will enable this integration in the end.

This is the 4th episode in a series of 6 posts dealing with the ambiguities in smart city development. They were published earlier in smart city hub

Smart Cities 1.0, 2.0, 3.0. What’s next?

Naamloos 5
Smart City 1.0
A Smart City 1.0 is a town that is maximizing the use of advanced technology as a lever for viability, sustainability, and control. These cities are often criticized because of their technology push and the influential role of large corporates, like IBM and CISCO.
Smart City 2.0
The predicate Smart City 2.0 is appropriate if technological tools explicitly are designed to cope with problems like pollution, sanitation, health and traffic in consultation with their citizens. Unfortunately, participation of citizens in formal decision-making structures and meetings is flawed and appeals to a small minority only.
Smart City 3.0
Meanwhile, a much larger number of citizens is involved in activities like gardening, food processing, improving the attractively of streets and even energy production. These activities, often referred to as commoning or place-making are deploying high-, low- or no-tech solutions. They connect every day collaborative acts with broader goals like social inclusion, democracy, enterprise creation and building social capital. Here, the predicate Smart City 3.0 is in order.

This post is about Smart Cities 3.0.

Until today, no city in the world can justify to be a Smart City 2.0 or 3.0. A limited number of cities might claim the predicate Smart City 1.0. The newly build suburb of Seoul, Songdo, probably is one of them (picture above). Amsterdam and Rotterdam are on their way towards Smart City 2.0. and possibly also towards Smart City 3.0. In both cities a number of collaborative projects are running. The Community Lovers Guide offers well illustrated examples from these and other towns. Some of them are mentioned in this post. According to Tessy Britton, one of the authors, many of these projects operate in isolation, lack support and as a consequence their continuity depends on limited number of forerunners.

The benefits of a platform approach

In theory, a platform approach is a useful tool to initiate, support and link projects, create the roots of a participatory culture and coordinate contacts with external parties. The municipal authorities of West Norwood (South London) were willing to support the exploration of the the feasibility of an approach like this. The platform – named The Open Works – became visible when its  ‘headquarter’ was opened in an empty shop.
screenshot 2
The headquarters of Open Works in West Norwood

Citizens were informed during informal and social meetings and any interested person was welcomed for a cup of tea in the headquarter. Within one year 20 projects have been initiated by groups of citizens and nearly 1000 people have participated more or less frequently.

A very readable and well-illustrated report is disclosing the results.

Key findings

The key findings below refer at the outcomes of the pilot project, but they are supported by experiences in other cases.
1. Building a dense and inclusive participatory ecology is feasible
Many citizens appear to be eager to participate in collaborative initiatives, provided these are activity-based. Inclusiveness is within easy reach if initial projects are chosen properly. For instance, multi-cultural cooking during information markets and festivals.
2. The number of activities has to pass a certain threshold to ignite a participatory culture
Adequate scaling-up of the number and the variety of activities is necessary to prevent isolation of single projects and to fuel the development of a particpatory culture. This threshold is is pretty high: ten percent of the citizens will have to meet three times a week on average. Besides, within a walking distance of fifteen minutes at least five alternative projects to be found.


3. The desirability of different types of participation

A first type are collaborative activities, focussing at daily needs. The second type are community ventures that might develop into social enterprises. Here a small group of people is offering services for the larger community. A well-known example is The Library of Things, based at sharing of utensils and equipment. In time these activities might create economic value and jobs.

Pendrecht University (Rotterdam)
4. Projects emerge from needs of citizens
Projects are organized ‘on the flow’. Written plans nor formal approval are necessary and some seed capital is available. Support of the platform (‘the headquarter’) appears of critical value. However the participants stay responsible and do the work, finding supplementary funding included.
5. Revival of community services is within reach
A participatory culture might successfully contribute to the reanimation of dilapidated services, like local stores, a minibus connection with major subway stations, refurbishment of abandoned parcels, crime preventing surveillance and reopening of closed amenities like a former community swimming pool . All based on voluntary work and supported by municipal authorities.
images-2 kopie
Men’s sheds (in many cities)
6. Care-taking of vulnerable citizens
Participation of vulnerable citizens in community activities sometimes prevent them becoming homeless, alcoholic, drug-addicted or criminal. Recent research, summarized in the above-mentioned Open Works final report, is confirming Putnam’s conclusion that community activities increase a society’s social capital and contribute to the physical and mental health of the citizens involved.
7. The platform approach has proved to be valuable
The three parttime staff members ignited projects, brought people together, organized meetings, took care of administrative burdens, intermediated with external parties and were able to pay small sums to deal with project expenses. The municipal investment in the platform was €10 per local resident.
An energy company founded and managed by citizens
8. Municipal administration has to adapt
Cooperation between the city administration and the citizens wil be boosted if the municipality is willing to adapt its involvement to citizen’s activities instead of pulling citizen’s activities into the structures of the municipality. Here too platforms are indispensable intermediaries between the administration and the citizens.

What’s next

At first continuation of the Norwood pilot for an additional period of two years was foreseen in view of scaling-up towards a larger territory. The people behind the Norwood case have been looking for a feasible opportunity. And they have found one. Over the next 5 years Participatory City will work with local residents and organisations in the borough Barking and Dagenham to create a new network of 250 projects and 100 businesses. The take-off is just now! See their new website or watch the short documentary below,
In case of success, this municipality might be the first city in the world to claim the predicate Smart City 3.0. Meanwhile other cities are on the same track, to mention only Amsterdam and Rotterdam. We can only hope that these cities learn from the West Norwood pilot and become tough opponents of Participatory City London North. Hopefully, in the near future Smart City 4.0 wil emerge, a city that offers all newly borns equal chances, where inequality is decreasing and where inclusivity is a matter of course.This is the third paper in a series of six, that have been published earlier in The Smart City Hub, a platform for research and opinions with regards to smart cities.