Searching for a universal yet unique model

Some of the areas in the smart model have already developed regulations (mobility, urban planning, waste management, etc), but still it remains difficult to find a common denominator that brings together all the experiencies that are being introduced in this field. The fact that this is an ever-changing, evolutive model that depends on the innovations the market makes available to cities makes everything even more complex.In Spain, their decision capacity in the design of their own model has been substantially reduced. We should move towards a universal model of a smart city, but the responsibility level of each city should be determined by the city itself.

I wrote this article after my visit to the Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC) 2014, which was held at the Fira de Barcelona-Hospitalet. The visit gave me an opportunity to think about smart city models. My reflection was triggered by the way the congress exhibition area was shared by two groups: on the one hand, technological and service companies; on the other hand, smart cities. Keeping both exhibition stands together may certainly be useful in terms of supplementing each other, but when looking at it from a different perspective -and this is what I will be describing from now on- it may also seem paradoxical, given that they are intended for different, clear-cut goals and limits.

On the one hand, company stands at the SCEWC are highly representative of the advances that have been reached in technology and applications at the service of cities in the last few years. Innovation and technological advances shown at the exhibition are increasingly remarkable. In this sense, contributions are open and they are not expected to stay there, but to be increased and renewed every year at the same lightning speed they are moving now. Probably, larger cities with higher economic potential will introduce such advances quickly, whereas other cities, perhaps the smaller ones, will be left behind in terms of innovation and in improving the quality of life of their citizens. When looking at the situation from a comprehensive perspective, we may realize that many of them will find it hard to keep up with so much technology.

 

Cities have no available standard on what the provisions and services to be developed in a so-called smart city should be

 

Keeping that in mind, the following should also be considered: cities that would be able (given their economic potential) to develop a set of services that included the best technological advances have no available standard on what the provisions and services to be developed in a so-called smart city should be. The expression is used and misused, and it is taken advantage of in order to embellish services and policies where innovation is scarce. Nonetheless, it is true that remaining in such a fuzzy region makes it possible for many cities to call themselves smart by “cleaning it up” with some marketing while introducing little added technology or innovation in the provision of services.

 

Action plans

It would be worth taking some time to stop and look back to find out what happened to the local Agenda-21 protocols as integral, somewhat standardized programmes defining a specific model tailored to the needs of each city. Unlike what happens nowadays in many smart cities, sustainable cities were grounded on (and this was a requisite) previous self-knowledge before the establishment of activity plans and actions that completed a programme intertwinned with basic, shared, commonly accepted environmental principles. Models, goals and action plans for each city were clearly defined.

Such previous knowledge, along with the formulation of the action plan being followed, was also present among those who signed the Covenant of Mayors. When looking into other sectors, such as those that are sustainability-specific or those that tackle actions in specifically determined areas (e.g., noise or air pollution, or else urban planning, just to name a few well-known models) we may also find a similar approach to learning from experience, in which administration-approved plans should be considered desiderata to stand by in the following years. In essence, there is always a diagnosis or audit of the previous situation as a starting point to later on establish the goals that should be reached. Afterwards, a pathway to follow is established (which may be longer or shorter depending on the situation) which is usually known as an action plan or plan management.

Indeed, the outline I suggest may be more complex and contain analysis that run in parallel to the goal to be achieved. Another meaningful example may be found in the environmental evaluations of plans and projects, which make up an integral whole with all the aforementioned instruments, but still have several clearly differentiated conceptual models and forms of production that are regulated by complementary regulations in the sector.

The definition of a hypothetical smart city plan or programme would include the same areas in which the SCEWC is structured:

Energy

  • Technology and innovation
  • Cooperative city and smart society
  • Sustainable “built environment”, mobility
  • Governance and economy
  • Resilience and urban security

 

Diagnosis and development

Using these specific areas as a standpoint, we should carry out a diagnosis and check the state of development and the innovation opportunities that may be introduced. Thus, the analysis would lead us to building up several lines of work and specific actions to be applied in every city, which would shape the definition of the model to be standardized.

Its being a universal phenomenon goes against the definition of a smart model or a smart plan. There is no European model definition for methodology or content inclusion, and specification becomes even more difficult due to its non-regulated intrinsic nature. Even though some of the areas in the smart model have already developed regulations (mobility, urban planning, waste management, etc.), still it remains difficult to find a common denominator that brings together all the experiencies that are being introduced in this sense. The fact that it is an ever-changing, evolutive model that depends on the innovations the market makes available to cities makes everything even more complex.

 

The expression “smart city” is used and misused, and it is taken advantage of in order to embellish services and policies where innovation is scarce

 

It can be argued against my view that, to a greater or lesser extent, the model is already established and the pathways to be followed on the way towards a smart, sustainable city are already outlined. But if I may say so -as an observer with a certain amount of experience in approaches to the local management of public services- after attending the SCEWC 2014 I am tempted to say that not all the solutions present should be there, and not all the available solutions are present. And by referring to solutions I mean both innovation measures introduced and the solutions many cities are already introducing.

In addition to that -to give a clear example of the difficulties that may be found when trying to define a model to be adapted to our country- the situation becomes even more complex when the State is involved in local responsibilities. This was done by making use of the opportunity provided to the legislator by the modification of art. 135 in the Constitution.

 

Green Smart City

 

The situation in Spain 

Upon the adoption of the Law 27/2013 (December 27) on the rationalization and sustainability of the local Administration (LRSAL), the field of responsibilities for local entities established in the Law 7/1985 (April 2) on the Foundations of Local Regimes has been modified. Featuring the motto “an Administration, a responsibility”, the local administration is adapted to the principles of budgetary stability and financial sustainability, to the provisions of the Organic Law 2/2012 (April 27), on Budgetary Stability and Financial Sustainability (where the aforementioned article 135 of the Constitution is developed). By doing so, the field of common responsibilities shared by Spanish cities has been clearly delimited, and the remaining responsibilities have been left to the statutes of every autonomous region, either by attribution of competences by means of legislation or by means of delegation to local entities, to cities.

Such a legislative technique -for the sake of financial sustainability- somewhat determines, at state level, the content each city may decide to attribute to itself as its own smart city model. In other words: a decentralized state model that attributes more responsibilities to local regions is different from a state model in which decisions are mostly taken centrally, either at state or autonomic level.

To sum up, I believe that we should be moving towards a broader universal model for a smart city, without the slightest doubt. In my opinion, the level of responsibilities of each city will set the way for the smart plan or programme developed by each of them. Even if the model is the same, those in charge of providing its contents should think carefully and previously consider the decentralization model of each State, as this is a significant hindrance to the definition of a future universal model for each smart city and it makes the model to be adopted less smart.

A closing critical remark: when it comes to Spain, the recent recentralization undertaken because of the aforementioned legislative reform has significantly reduced the decision capacity of each city to design its own model.

Robert Álvarez Sastre 

 


 Robert Álvarez Sastre is a lawyer who specializes in urban planning and environmental issues. He holds a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law and postgraduate training in urban planning and environmental issues, as well as courses in local administration by several universities and schools. He has a wealth of experience in Urban planning both in the public and private sectors, including urban management, planning, planning permission and urban discipline. He has also taken part in the management of the local and environmental Agenda 21 at the local level: noise, air polution, evaluation of environmental impact, mobility, cell phone services, environmental licences, waste management, etc.

Searching for a universal yet unique model

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