Citie – A Smart City Ranking that you should use !

CitieFrameworkOh no !!!! One more Smart City ranking !!!!!

Who didn’t think lately this when confronted with another Smart City ranking? Indeed, in the last years, in spite of the lack of indicators, it has been an explosion of smart city rankings attempting to bring something new to the table.

However, two main problems plague Smart City rankings.

First, the lack of data. There is little data at city level and therefore you have to resort to interviews, self-declared assessments or use national or at most regional data, which makes non-sense for individual cities. Also, there isn’t any data that could allow a fair comparison of city initiatives. Again surveys take the main role and with them a very subjective view, if not bias, of the impact and worth of these initiatives.

Secondly, the polyhedric nature of the concept. Smart City is usually defined by its impact in many areas ranging from resilience to citizen participation or economic growth. Having cities different priorities it seems logical that they push in different directions. How can you compare them? The classical example refers to new cities recently build versus the old ones where many infrastructures cannot be changed. They obviously confront very different priorities.

When in spite of these difficulties you attempt to produce an index, any index, comes the question of usefulness. What is its contribution? Rank the efforts that cities do around Smart Cities, why is this useful?

Most of them rank existing assets in the different categories of the index, which honestly adds little not only to our understanding but in terms of guiding political action.

Once you gave up comparing potatoes with oranges, resilience with citizen participation or the rise of the sharing economy, the idea of a ranking that can provide a framework that could orientate Smart City initiatives can certainly be of some interest.

Very recently (June 2015), Nesta, Accentrue and Catapult have produced one of these: Citie that aims to rank city initiatives for technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. Citie doesn’t cover the whole spectrum of Smart Cities but maybe its most interesting part because it talks about growth and these days we all need growth, don’t we?

I am sure that you want to know the winners first 🙂

well here there are: New York, London, Helsinki, Barcelona and Amsterdam. Surprised? I guess not …

Beyond the winners, I think that the ranking is more interesting as a framework for assessing the efforts of a city and devising what else can be done than a tool for comparison. When comparing we will face again the two main problems of any other Smart City ranking.

Citie has three pillars: Openess, Infrastructure and Leadership.

Openness refers to how open is the city to new ideas and business. Its inclusion is a clear indication to what extend Open Innovation and a culture of collaboration has taken our minds. There is little doubt that cities have to go beyond trying to provide all services themselves and attract business and talent becoming hubs. The index reflects well this idea.

Openness has three main measures. The openness in terms of regulation, the advocacy towards the city (active branding) and as a customer, how much city’s procurement is accessible to small companies or individual developers.

Personally I think that City as a customer doesn’t belong there and City as a Connector should be there. Cities can play an active role in facilitating connection between organizations, individuals and other cities and Cities today should act as bridges, the example of Israel on how governments can act as bridges is probably the most eloquent one.

The second pillar is infrastructure. Citie defines this pillar as how cities optimize its infrastructure for high-growth business. In this pillar we can find three main indicators: City as a host – how well uses space to create opportunities for high-growth, City as an investor and City as a connector meaning digital connectivity.

This is the pillar that I find more problematic because it doesn’t talk about infrastructure but about Business Development and there digital connectivity has pretty much a marginal role.

If we use Business Development we can still use City as a Host, City as an investor (e.g. civic VC funds) and City as a costumer will fit well here. How cities use their purchase power in order to foster and facilitate growth and development.

Finally the third pillar is Leadership with the meaning of how much the city builds digital innovation in its thinking, objectives and strategy. Again three indicators: Strategist – how much is this in the core strategy of the city, Digital Governor in the sense of digital government and Datavore referring to the use of Big Data and in general data for optimizing services (here digital connectivity fits well).

These three pillars refer to an important function of cities, which is to build and help to succeed the future that their citizens want. There is however, another important function: the provision of inclusive, socially fair services that the framework doesn’t address. In the Digital world, this provision implies a transformation of the structures and culture of local governments that should also be addressed and included.

In spite that I don’t agree in many points, I think however that this effort goes in the right direction, maybe not in terms of the assessment which again is self-assessed but in terms of providing a framework that can guide transformative efforts in Smart Cities.

However, as in many other areas of life, the devil is in the details and in cities the details hide in what we mean by terms such as digital government: are we aiming to empower citizens or are we talking of a centralized hierarchical government? What do we mean by City as an investor? Civic apps, civic startups, co-working spaces or large infrastructural projects driven by multinationals?

What is the impact and the transformative capacity of these decisions is of key significance and it is the part that we still know little.