Written by Rob Aalders
I live and work in a former mining town in the deep south of The Netherlands. Far from the Dutch big cities, but in the heart of Europe. The type of city you won’t find in the top charts. A town that has a shrinking population and looses talent. Across the globe and in particular in Europe, these demographic changes are the main trend. Not growth. It’s the kind of town that needs to be smart far more than those places highlighted in smart cities visions.
As many write about the big cities in far away countries and growing urban population. The reality of the smart cities is far closer and smaller. It’s in places like my hometown Heerlen, Duisburg, Enschede, Santander and Borlänge. Small and medium-sized cities are the places were the majority of city people live. Being an urban geographer and taking part of these trends, these ongoing changes have my ongoing interest.
Before we get into the aspects, which I think are key to the smart city, let’s first have a brief look into the past. The city as we know it today is heavily formed by technologies, but we don’t tend to think that way because it has become so normal to us. Once, streetlights and traffic lights were true innovations. Cars have produced suburbs, highways, elevators and skyscrapers. The telephone and television have had a large impact on urbanity as well. Cities are actually growing smarter everyday. You are part of it having a smart-phone. History tells us that the capability of adopting new technologies by cities is a key factor to their success. So, the core of a smart city is finding ways to be able to quickly adapt to changes and grasp opportunities.
If cities want to be better places to live and work they have to start to take the virtual space as serious as the physical space. Cities have departments full of people working on the physical, but very few have people working on the virtual. Nevertheless, the virtual space has a growing impact on our experience and a city’s functioning. There is no such a thing as a smart city without new technology. Even when the local government is not actively working on it, it has to respond to the changing needs of citizens. Today’s cities need to find answers to take advantage of new developments and to fully engage its citizens. The debate about the smart city, mostly written by either academics or business has great value. However, it doesn’t provide an answer for the majority of politicians and civil servants. The smart city is not yet concrete enough, it’s hard to understand. I’m sure many city officials will recognize this. The vision is appealing and all cities want to be smart, but where to start?
Especially in cities with Rust Belt-like challenges, there’s an urge for developing smart ways to keep those places livable. These cities have great qualities and a population that loves to live there. Smart solutions can help them to be small and smart. They need to find new ways of organizing themselves and the community. The keyword might be as much small as smart.
In my next blogpost I will address smart communication as a crucial part of a smart city. The activities to get local politicians and citizens to understand and feel what a smart city is about. So, how can we create communities with a strong sense of place? How can we get people to be aware, engaged and involved? The answer might simply be not so smart.
About Rob Aalders
Rob Aalders is founder of R.A.U.M. an agency for smart city strategies. It is specialized on urban media to make the smart city visible. R.A.U.M. also creates projects for building vibrant startup communities. Besides R.A.U.M. Rob works for the city of Heerlen (NL) on Creative Industries and Smart City developments
 Sustainable SocietyNetwork+: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/digital-economy-lab/partnernetworks/sustainablesocietynetwork