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Can technology transform a standard city, into being a smart one?

Time to get moving on 'smart' solutions as people are moving in droves to cities all over the world
Shanghai Skyline
(photo credit: CC-BY Matt Paish, Flickr.com)

Urbanization is rapidly taking force as the citizens of the world are flocking to cities. Professionals, students, and citizens alike are shifting their livelihood into the cities of the globe in order to achieve a better future for themselves and their children. While a majority of the world already lives in cities, the United Nations predicts that 64% of the developing world, and 85% of the developed world will live in cities by the year 2050. And in this day in age, we are also seeing the growth of the megacity – places with a population size of over 10 million.

With the emergence of these megacities (which hold more citizens than many nation-states), in hand with the rapid growth of urbanization, our authorities are challenged with the task of developing new ways to manage these crowded population hubs. Our new cities are facing age old challenges such as growing food demand, and water and energy consumption. Older cities that are been based on a once efficient infrastructure, are now facing challenges of faltering and inefficient infrastructures. A massive call for infrastructural development is being sounded for older and charming cities with busy modern citizens.

Inefficient city functions can be managed and ameliorated with efficient municipal systems. If implemented correctly, local authorities will be able to monitor and supervise the growth and development of a once inefficient structure. Implementing structures for public transportation into the urban planning of a city, will affect and support residents, employment, and commerce in a positively correlated way. With an updated approach, private homes even have the ability to produce and utilize natural energy and resources.

The effect of growing urbanization and the increasing pace of innovation in technology has led to the creation of a new buzzword – “Smart-City”. When Googling for “Smart Cities“ the results seem to be dominated by big technology corporations, while the reality of the term may be more municipal or grass-roots oriented. Smart Cities are cities that implement advanced technologies such as: sewer pressure sensors, bicycle sharing platforms, or establishing a network of fiber optics to support gigabit-speed Internet. The main objective of smart cities is to improve the lives of residents in cities where they live. Major tech giants such as IBM, CISCO and SAMSUNG have managed to identify the need for smart solutions, and they have developed solutions and services for managing smart cities

But the question is, does the implementation of new technology turn an ordinary city into a smart city? The answer is simple: no.

Municipalities today are required to formulate an appropriate strategy for the 21st century. Smart cities will be cities where citizens can participate in the decision making process and have more power in changing their lives. Municipalities, in turn, will be required to adopt the work processes of public participation and building stronger communities. A Smart City will be a city that engages with its citizens to have a better understanding of the citizens needs and the ways to provide them with those goods and services. In addition, municipalities can achieve prosperity by creating platforms for innovation and entrepreneurship. In an era of increasing urbanization and technological innovation, Mega Cities will rise.

The increasing amount of people on the planet holds another major challenge for cities – maintaining food supply and dealing with the increasing cost of food and agricultural products. Given the fact that by year 2050, several billion people will be added to the world population, the demand for food will increase dramatically. Cities will have to find new ways to supply food by adopting new models and technologies such as urban agriculture. The concept of vertical farming is already perceived as a supplement to traditional agriculture.

A prime example of a city dealing with innovative structural changes is Havana, Cuba. After years of embargo, Havana has managed to reinvent itself and create a lively and cohesive community that grows food locally. In Havana you can find innovative methods of urban agriculture such as vertical farming and permaculture. Ecological tourists from around the world come to Havana to learn about urban farming methods. In Havana you can find colorful markets and fruits and vegetables growing in balconies, roofs and walls of buildings in the city.

The municipality of Tel Aviv has identified the need to create a platform for the young community so it could prosper. Tel Aviv established Mazeh 9 – a unique urban center that serves as a home and a hub for the activities of the city’s vast young adult population. Mazeh 9 exemplifies the essence of crowdsourcing. People come to Mazeh 9 with ideas and solutions they have and they try make these ideas happen together with the support of the municipality. This is a good example for a smart city strategy that does involve any technological process, but merely a simple organizational change. Innovation will come from the masses, not from the mayor’s office.

Urban Farming at Mazeh 9, Tel Aviv
Urban Farming at Mazeh 9, Tel Aviv

A good example for a social enterprise that started at Mazeh 9 is the urban farming lab. The lab’s goal is to promote the practice of urban farming in Tel Aviv. The lab holds events, workshops and courses where citizens can learn how to grow food by themselves. More than 20 people have joined the first course for Urban farming and they already grow their own food in their own homes.

The perception that a smart city is a city of technology is missing a large part of the picture. Smart cities are cities that are open for innovation and entrepreneurship that comes from bottom up. Smart Cities will be the cities that build platforms for economic prosperity, social and environmental change, and innovation with the aid of advanced technology.

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About the Author
Omri Ziv is a Smart Cities Technology Specialist. Omri holds a Bachelor's Degree in Management of Information Systems from the Tel Aviv Academic College and is currently earning his MBA at at Tel Aviv University.
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