Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Role of ICT in the Governance of Smart Cities

                          .....how to turn technological infrastructures into value for society.....

An overwhelming body of scientific evidence now clearly indicates that climate change is a serious and urgent issue [1]. In parallel, the unprecedented growth in the world population occurred over the last centuries coupled with the gradual increase in developing countries’ spending power has contributed to exacerbate the unsustainability of existing consumption patterns. The drawing of world’s natural resources at a faster pace that they can be restored, has been proven over the decades to be one of the main pitfalls of modern socioeconomic systems [2]. The combined effect of the above phenomena is gradually but steadily leading the world towards a global environmental, economic and social collapse. As put in the Stern review: “There exists a serious risk of major irreversible change with non-marginal effects on modern life as we know it today” [1].

In such a scenario, many commentators identified cities as the battle-ground in the fight against climate change and ICT as a strategic lever for success. A vision that gives rise to two questions: how is the transition that cities will have to undergo going to be governed? What role will ICT play in the governance of such process?
The following post represents a first attempt to explore the latter question. In particular, I devised a synoptic framework attempting to provide a unifying view of such role as well as some of the ingredients necessary to turn technological infrastructures into value for society.

- The Smart City House Model -

The framework was baptized “the smart city house” model with the intent to run a parallel between the process of building a house and that of value creation. The model should be read from the bottom upwards. In the foundations of the house, it is possible to find a socio-technical infrastructure [3] containing the contextual factors that need to be present in an ecosystem in order for it to be able to fully exploit the potential of ICT. The key ingredients are networks, data, software, brainware (people) and laws that should be respectively accessible, interconnected and innovation-friendly.  It is important to underline that value does not simply reside in the individual resources (e.g. data or software, etc.) but also in the links and connections that it is possible to establish between the different resources. This of course in the belief that – as asserted by complexity theory – the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In this respect, interoperability - in all its possible declinations (technological, semantic, organizational, etc.) - represents a key value driver for society.

Moving up one level, we find the pillars of the house representing the key strategic contributions that ICT may offer to the creation of value and to the transformation of cities in smarter and more sustainable environments. In particular, three main contributions have been identified. The first has to do with the possibility of enabling new paradigms of production, distribution and governance. To exemplify, let’s think of the energy sector, where the emergence of distributed generation paradigms is bringing along significant changes such as the need to build networks with smarter peripheral nodes. In such a framework, ICT may cover a complementary role by offering an important contribution in terms of management, planning and control of production to both energy “prosumers” and energy network operators. The second contribution has to do with the possibility to transform the way in which many daily activities are conducted. In this respect, we may think of telework, telemedicine leading to a decoupling between activities and the physical location in which they are conducted. Another example could be the opportunities offered to local communities to self-organize [4] to manage different aspects of their lives (e.g. fair-trade collective purchasing promotes the consumption of local products and the disintermediation of the distribution chain with deep social and environmental impacts). The third and final contribution has to do with the role of ICT in informing individual choices and behaviors. As a matter of fact, the reduction of the carbon footprint of an urban area inevitably requires the modification of everyday choices of millions of individuals. Inducing such change is not an easy task and surely may not be achieved by a mere top-down approach. The wise use of ICT may help in diffusing a greater environmental awareness and sensitivity leading to the emergence of social norms incentivizing more virtuous behaviors. In this respect, the role of the web and, in particular, of social media as a useful source of information, training and debates may turn out to be central in igniting and accelerating the process of change among significant portions of the population.

Moving now to the final part of the house, the roof represents the value orientation that any smart initiative should never lose sight of in order to generate positive externalities for society. The triangular shape has been divided into three different layers in order to generate a stack configuration with different and interrelated levels. Each level, in fact, depends on the level below in terms of existence similarly to what happens in other hierarchical models present in the literature (e.g. Maslow pyramid, stack OSI/ISO). The introduction of society’s needs in a layered structure intends not only to stress the importance of a value orientation but also to stimulate the reflection of what value should be produced. To exemplify, the mere push towards economic growth to the expenses of the environment and public health that has dominated the world’s economy over the last century, when put in relation with this hierarchical schema clearly shows its shortcomings linked with the attempt to build the second layer without having assured the existence of the level below. I am of course aware of the fact that the model proposed represents a simplification and that in the real world it may be necessary and possible to privilege economic aspects to the expense of more fundamental needs. At the same time, it is important to stress that this misalignment of priorities may only be considered a temporary solution as it is clearly unsustainable. Looking at it from economic theory perspective, long term strategies should therefore attempt to wisely balance the actions aimed at producing resources with high value in exchange and actions aimed at better employing environmental resources with a high value in use.

The framework proposed provides a simple and synthetic representation of how ICT infrastructures may be turned into value within urban areas and, more in general, in any type of social ecosystems. It contains an organic depiction of the relationship between the necessary inputs (the foundation), the expected outputs (the pillars), and the desired outcomes (the roof) of a smart and sustainable urban ecosystem. This representation on top of offering a useful tool in the definition of smart city strategies may also provide precious inputs in the design of impact assessment frameworks for the evaluation of a city performance against a number of long term policy objectives to be operationalized in terms of value creation.
Concluding, if a conclusion may be drawn, there seems to be a great potential for the application of ICT in the governance of the change that urban areas will have to undergo in the decades to come. In order to deliver on their promises, such technologies will have to be employed not only to increase the intelligence of socioeconomic systems but also to establish incentive structures promoting the creation of sustainable public value. The real smart city - in fact - will have to learn how to reconcile individual and collective needs, in other words: channel individual aspirations towards the creation of value for society at large through the attainment of economic, social and environmental objectives.

Enrico Ferro.

PS: This post was inspired by the following papers:

[1] N. Stern, Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, 2006
[2] D.H. Meadows, DL Meadows, J. Randers, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, 2004.
[3] R. Lock, I. Sommerville, Modelling and Analysis of Socio-Technical System of Systems, 15th IEEE International Conference on Engineering of Complex Computer Systems , Volume: 42, Issue: 5, Publisher: Ieee, Pages: 224-232, 2010
[4] A. Cottica, Wikicrazia, Navarra Editore, 2010.



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