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12 December 2019

“Almost a decade of the Smart City EXPO, so what do we see?”

Barcelona has always been at the forefront of smart city innovation – certainly in a Spanish context, and increasingly recognised as such worldwide. The city and Fira made a bold brave move way back in 2011 to establish the Smart City EXPO and World Congress (SCEWC). Much water has passed under the bridge since then. We have seen the early hype with accompanying slideware; a bit of a dip in enthusiasm as the market sought to find its way; however, the picture painted this November was that of a market that is maturing, that can show real evidence, and is most certainly now there to stay.

So, what insights can be drawn, and what can we look forward to for the 10th anniversary in 2020? Here are six observations from the journey so far.

  1. We now know far more about what we mean by ‘smart’

We were blessed with the term ‘smart city’ at the back end of the noughties. Thankfully we’re learning to live with it, not that everyone loves it. It’s just that we have developed a better and more common understanding of what it means. 

There is an ISO ‘working definition’ from a few years back that is rare in that it puts it doesn’t have technology or digitisation in the first few words; puts it as a ‘means’ in the context of sustainability and resilience (the purpose), focuses on who it’s for, and provides four meaningful themes to think about – with tech and data being the latter one.

The message is that we are now focused more on outcomes – betterment for people, planet, and prosperity. Much less about pushing products that are looking for a purpose.

What is increasingly evident, and in the conversation this year, is a broadening of the discussion to include multiple themes, and more practical examples of impacts that go beyond the areas we’ve focused on over past years – like worrying about the health effects, ethics and the like, from what we do.

This is great, as it serves to reinforce the systemic nature of city infrastructures and services. Complexities and interdependencies that we now recognise and see a means to manage.

Just embrace the spirit of ‘smart’, and get over it!

  1. Geographical differences are clear, and interesting

It is a gross simplification for which I will no doubt get beaten up, however there are three interesting models evident.

  • The American model that is rather commercially biased – the platform model, for which the continent can show staggeringly larger market capital as evidence. How do these gains benefit the lives of real people though, inclusively? 
  • Then there’s the tech-centric APAC model. Visitors will have noticed as staggering array of huge screens, a spray of robots, and multiple monitoring cameras. What China and APAC countries can’t do with technology I just don’t know? Unconstrained, and stretching the boundaries of possibilities – or overstretching?
  • And finally, the European version. In many ways it appears to be a bit slow moving (actually it is!), however it feels like it may have a clearer conscience and purpose – certainly it is well exercised around the people and environmental agendas. It seems that it forms a benchmark however for so many other countries as most can see something of relevance and learning in good old heterogeneous Europe!

The thing that not one of these or any other geography should do is be complacent. Society faces a tumultuously growing and complex set of intertwined challenges. On that basis, innovation, as a genuine capability, rather than a glibly used word, is still a missing ingredient, everywhere!

  1. The right ecosystems are emerging

Wonder around the EXPO and one sees groupings of companies, regional groups of cities, and nationally-led mixed public / private / scientific stands, and institutionally-fronted common programmes. The European Commission stand being a very good case in point. A portfolio of 17 programmes, now representing 114 cities, all tackling a shared set of challenges.  Rest atop that the new European ‘Climate Neutral and Smart Cities’ Mission (which also by the way reaches across a wider range of themes) and you have a veritable powerhouse for transformation. 

These ecosystems are vitally important, as no city should tackle what are common challenges as isolated islands (something to constantly remind ourselves about); and no industry player can satisfy a city’s needs solo. Collaboration is vital.

The constant searching out of potential partners, of sharing what works and doesn’t, offers the ingredients for great learning. And it’s good exercise for the legs too.

  1. Commonality is key to deliver outcomes and speed and scale

A handful of years back Antoni Vives, the Deputy Mayor of Barcelona at the time, pleaded for no more pilots! “We’re at risk of creating a Frankenstein”. All the right bits, just butt ugly! 

The need to get on with things as ‘business as usual’ rather than (small) pilots is still there. Doing so creates a market. It delivers scale, and scale attracts the attention of industry – both large and small – to concentrate on providing quality best value solutions. We should sing Toni’s mantra from the rooftops, as the piloting habit persists.

Collaboration and ecosystems help us get around this, however there is more. We need to develop trusted and familiar guidance, well-structured evidence-based case studies to build confidence to act, common protocols and open standards to make the market more fluid and productive. that will also help time-compress the currently rather lengthy up front city decision cycles – often spanning a Mayor’s term (and we all know the risk that introduces!).

This is where the EU-funded Lighthouse community, and the EIP-SCC Marketplace need to play an ever-stronger role to produce packaged solutions that become familiar, trusted, and proven in the market. From a rather unseen stand lost in the backwaters some years back, the European stand has become a legitimate location to hear what is going on across Europe. Long may that continue.

  1. The money is still rather absent

There remains one rather worrisome missing ingredient – liberal quantities of available funds. There are all too few investors seen in Barcelona. They still too often see cities as “too small, too slow, and too risky” – a comment that only reinforces the need for education on both sides. Confidence and  commonality will bring scale and certainty – and that will bring money. It’s not a lack of money in the market; there is plenty. It’s more a lack of innovation in putting together new business models that present projects in the most bankable manner. And the blending of funds from public – that can stimulate early stage less-proven investments, or where public value and longer-term outcomes are expected; with market funds. And there are multiple sources of funds in the market. We must get better at knowing what each investor type needs, and jointly work together to innovate and produce models that work.

Public value is complicated. That’s not something that we should apologise for. It’s just the way it is, and we should be mighty thankful that we have public servants around to seek to make that so! what we do however need is to understand that complexity; work with it together, and be imaginative.

  1. It’s just getting bigger and better

I wonder what the attendance figure was for the first Smart City EXPO? The number and the presence of that first event pales when compared to today. This event is just getting bigger and better. It is truly global, and the standout event on the global smart city calendar.

Alas, the extraordinary networking potential pulls one away from listening in to what is a constant stream of quality opinions being shared in the conference. However, the sheer volume of people now attending – around 25,000 this year – means that no room is empty.

One thing that struck me as hugely positive this year was the focus on sustainability, the SDGs, and the future. Exemplified by a closing ‘Agenda 2030’ plenary, a good precursor for the Madrid COP25. Very apt. We should however also urgently look well beyond 2030 and get our sights set on what is a very uncertain longer-term horizon, however one where there are some very obvious things to tackle now with vim and vigour.

So, what for the 10th Anniversary?

On 17-19th November 2020 we shall find out. Bigger, yes. Better, more than likely. Hopefully yet more focused on evidence and impact, with yet more compelling examples of spade-ready solutions that have been demonstrated to work in cities; with yet more of the real breadth of themes addressed where smart cities can make life better. And more intrigued investors walking the corridors.

Perhaps we can then kick start the debate about where and how we can manage learning across the world’s continents to purposefully tackle our grand challenges?

After a day of EXPO networking, then two days of conference and EXPO – we all have a good reason to be exhausted yet fulfilled; and have enjoyed the local hospitality and great tapas too!

We shall see you all, and many more, next year.

Meantime, Happy holidays!

Graham Colclough