Building Smarter Cities With Social Technologies

[This post was originally published on ZaGarage by Kuliza on September 5th 2011. You can read the original post here.]

Community, crowdsourcing and mobile initiatives to make cities a smarter place to live

People look for great cities to live in. The Economist Intelligence UnitMercer and others help us out with their annual rankings of the best cities to live in based on – amongst other things – recreation, health care, political, social and cultural environment, education, housing and infrastructure. In the future, determining how good a city is to live in will also depend on how smart the city is. So along with healthcare, education and housing people will also look at how the city utilizes physical infrastructure, such as transport and ICT, and the availability and quality of intellectual and social capital to improve living standards and drive urban growth and competitiveness.

There are three defining characteristics of a smart city:

  • A networked infrastructure
  • Community intelligence to improve urban planning, development and innovation management
  • Social and environmental sustainability through the participation of citizens in city processes

The concept of smart cities has been on the agenda of governments and corporations for the last number of years. Investment is also accelerating. A recent report by ABI Research estimates that the market for technologies related to smart cities projects will grow from $8 billion in 2010 to $39 billion in 2016. This will include spending on e-government initiatives, initiatives to reduce carbon footprints, waste and recycling initiatives, intelligent transport systems, and wireless networks. There are a number of reasons why there is so much investment in smart cities:

  • There is a limit to how much people and businesses can be taxed. Budget crises during the recession of the last few years means that city governments have to look at long-term measures to manage and modernize their services and infrastructure
  • Governments need to cut costs without cutting services so they are using analytics to understand and improve operational productivity and efficiency
  • There is competition among cities to attract businesses to maintain growth and development and to attract people to live and work by improving the quality of the urban environment
  • 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050 the urban population is expected to double, further straining city services and infrastructure
  • Cities are major polluters: they occupy 2% of the world’s geography but account for 75% of the greenhouse gases

Leaving aside the smart city projects that focus on infrastructure and energy management, I want to look at how individuals, communities and governments are using social technologies to harness community intelligence, social capital and improve urban environments and city process. There are lots of projects and initiatives happening around the world and I have included a brief about many others at the end of this post.


There are plenty of enthusiastic people who want to make a difference in their community. SeeClickFix supports hyper-local, community-driven activism to empower citizens, community groups, media organizations and governments to improve their neighbourhoods. Their online platform and mobile apps allow citizens to flag and report non-emergency community issues such as potholes and graffiti, share them on a web-based map for others to view and comment on complaints based on location as well as view the profiles of people who report issues nearby. SeeClickFix also have a Facebook page and an app with game mechanics, giving users Civic Points for performing actions that engage with the app including reporting issues, uploading an image or taking action in order to get an issue resolved.

SeeClickFix doesn’t just crowdsource community intelligence to improve their local environment, but helps to improve city processes by routing complaints to the relevant parties such as local governments and media outlets to resolve them. SeeClickFix provides community groups (neighborhood associations, volunteer groups, business associations) with an online platform to connect and address the needs of their community, governments with a dashboard for tracking and acknowledging issues, and media outlets with a platform to stay up-to-date with events that impact the community. It has been a major success, with over 200,000 users, more than 30 government clients, and 50% of user-reported issues resolved.


In February 2011 BMW created a $100 million venture capital fund to invest in mobile apps that make it easier for people to navigate urban areas by car, bike, public transport or walking. This is part of establishing a new, sustainability-focused sub-brand to integrate the concepts of luxury and sustainability. Non-automotive transport has not been BMW’s interest, but it is to its customers and potential customers, and BMW is branding itself as a solution finder and innovator in making cities smarter and cleaner along with promoting their hybrid and electric cars.

There are three apps that BMW has invested in that use community intelligence and the participation of users to reduce traffic congestion, improve how people navigate their city and life in their cities.


Running only in Munich at the moment, this is a car sharing service that gives users access to a car whenever they need it. After registering with their driver’s license, users can reserve a car online or through a mobile app and use the car at a cost of 29c a minute, including petrol and free parking within Munich city.


It is the largest online parking marketplace connecting owners of parking spaces who want to earn money renting it out to people who need a convenient space to park.


It is a real-time, location-aware suite of mobile apps designed to help users navigate and explore cities. It can be used for connecting with other users, finding a restaurant that allows dogs, locating the nearest wireless hotspot, sharing tips, finding parking ahead of time, and checking live traffic cameras.


Traffic management systems are one of the major features of smart city projects, and are offered by companies like IBM as part of their Intelligent Operations Center. There are plenty of mobile apps that try to improve travel by facilitating carpooling, notifying public transport travel times and connections, or by route planning to avoid traffic jams.

One (future) app that sounds promising is SignalGuru. It was developed by researchers at Princeton and MIT to reduce congestion and fuel consumption in cities. It uses GPS enabled smartphones mounted on car dashboards to estimate traffic light patterns. The app informs the driver how long until the signal turns green and suggests the driving speed to prevent stopping at a red light. So far in early testing in Massachusetts the app has successfully predicted red lights to within 0.66 seconds and reduced petrol use by 20%.

With so many developments in this space, cities need a vision for the type of environment they want to develop and a masterplan of how they will achieve this that incorporates both large scale solutions and community-led initiatives that bring together experts and individuals. As exciting as these projects are, there are some concerns and questions that will need to be debated:

  • Each initiative creates a huge amount of user information and data, which naturally leads to questions about privacy and how governments in some countries choose to use the data to exert control over their citizens
  • Who owns the brains of a city? Is it the community and services like SeeClickFix, or large companies like IBM and Cisco with their ‘smart city in a box’ solutions?
  • What happens when the interests of a large company and the city and residents are no longer aligned?

Further examples of smart city initiatives

There are numerous smart city initiatives and projects underway around the world. I couldn’t cover every one so I’ve listed some others that I find interesting:

  • Songdo in South Korea – the first city to have developed the smart city concept from the ground level up
  • IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center to monitor and manage city services
  • Amsterdam Smart City – a collaboration between people, businesses and government to create sustainable, large-scale programs that reduce CO2 emissions
  • Austin’s budget allocator to determine which urban projects to invest in
  • City Sourced – a mobile civic engagement platform that allows residents to report issues to the local government for resolution
  • San Jose Mobile City Hall – a mobile engagement tool to allow residents to report issues to the San Jose government for resolution
  • Betaville – a collaborative platform for cities in which ideas for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development can be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context by individuals and experts
  • Cooltownbeta – a crowdsourcing consultancy
  • Reset San Francisco – an online community that brings locals together around ideas and solutions to improve San Francisco.