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For years Memoori has been promoting the benefits of human-focused smart cities in opposition to those who think smart cities are just about implementing technology and digital infrastructure. We have not been alone in this mindset but we’ve recently seen a big step for the approach when multiple political and technology leaders at the Smart Cities Connect Conference last week highlighted this very idea.

“At its very core, a smart city is a city that has been able to look inside and identify what its challenges are — what its people and residents need to have the quality of life they want to have — and to craft unique solutions that enable the city and the community to deal with those challenges,” said Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin, Texas. “That truly is what a smart city is.”

It’s not just about designing smart cities in a way that is easier for citizens to use. It is also about accessing the unrivalled knowledge of citizens on what is going on in their city – namely asking what are the most important problems and what is the best way to solve them. Citizens have their eyes and ears open to every corner of the city, and only their collective intelligence can shape the development of a city organically.

Back in 2015 we talked about the evolution of the Smart City from the bottom-up rather than a top-down system, which has been prevalent around the world. We equated the Smart City to the Internet and Smartphones, which became the global phenomenon we see today by fashioning themselves as a platform upon which anyone could create the sites and apps that shape their direction. This organic, albeit messy, approach fosters their popularity, their usefulness and their profitability.

At the recent Smart Cities Connect Conference, Mayor Adler’s fellow Austinite, Jay Boisseau – Founder and President of Austin CityUP – led a panel on these issues. The panel suggested that smart cities use technologies to collect and analyze data to make better decisions that improve city infrastructure and services “for people.” Highlighting the misnomer that most smart technologies are focused on measuring infrastructure and services, rather than informing people, engaging citizens, and collecting data directly from residents and visitors.

Smart city technology, beyond sensing its physical environment, has the capacity to be the link between the city and its citizens. In fact, using the unprecedented level of information and communication technology present today – be it the internet or smartphones – the city and its citizens can interact like never before. If smart cities use a human-focused approach their urban societies can reach new heights in terms of governance and development in the broadest sense.

“The best city is one in which the authorities create a platform for it’s people to make it great,” we said in an article early last year. In ‘Smart Communities make Smart Cities’ we explored early-stage citizen engagement tools such as Korea’s Sharing City Seoul initiative, the I love Beijing app, FixMyStreet in the UK, Iceland’s Better Reykjavik website, and Madame Mayor, I have an idea in the French captial. The common theme among these successful community driven projects is a government that listens and reacts to the plethora of good ideas emerging from their residents.

We can go further than the somewhat impractical process of hearing every idea a population of millions may have, to enabling citizens to develop problem solving projects themselves. “When we talk about solutions emerging from its citizens we are really talking about the emergence of start-ups and social enterprises, supported, hopefully, by a technological platform developed by governments and large IT firms,” we said in our article ‘The Only Way to ‘Start-Up’ Smart Cities.’

This path is not only good for the residents but also for the city’s economic prosperity. By expanding open data policies, for example, providing all manner of information to start-ups and social entrepreneurs, we empower an economic growth engine for urban innovation. We can provide a platform for emerging organizations to serve the city and even grow beyond its boundaries, we create jobs and opportunities, we rejuvenate neighborhoods, raise house prices and average incomes. A human-focused smart city is a prosperous smart city.

In fact the business world provides the proof of concept. “Companies that are growing and obtaining market share have the customer at the center of their design thinking principles,” said Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce during the conference. “And as you [the government] think about building and evolving smart cities, you have to have citizens at the center.”

Putting citizens at the center of smart city design is not just a good social idea – it is the best way to foster innovation. “Companies don’t disrupt, cities don’t disrupt,” Afshar said. “People disrupt.”

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