Raising the bar for smart city ecosystems

Smart cities all around the world are reimagining their future with technology as the new normal, enabling both connections between city elements and with citizens. At the same time different definitions abound about what being smart actually means, making our understanding of the concept far from complete. In order to make the distinction between which projects are mere digital “pixie dust” and which ones will truly reshape the urban future, a better framing is necessary.

Ecosystems are a key part to explain urban future challenges, and to frame which elements will be important in realising truly smart cities. A truly smart city will be that city that succeeds in understanding, activating, orchestrating, servicing and reinventing the complex ecosystems it consists of. In the long run the active management of ecosystems will be more decisive for smart city ambition success than vision, political commitment or technological ability to name just a few other, significant success factors.

Why should or would a city administration care about these ecosystems? Within a city context, ecosystems increasingly self-organise, so it’s a question of understanding what ecosystems are about and being actively involved, or missing the boat and being overtaken by other players. An example.  The Swedish public transport company used to be convinced that it had to deliver all possible mobility-related services on its own website. Ignoring the broader ecosystem, it only realized it was on a wrong track when unauthorized applications used by thousands of clients caused its website to malfunction. They were just in time to realize that collaboration proved to be a better strategy than competition, and now it actively promotes services developed by third party developers using its public Application Programming Interface (API).

The sheer multitude and diversity of players in the ecosystem, each with a different agenda, will be a challenge. Moreover, it will cause an obstacle for smart city ambitions. The ecosystem of a smart city is too complex and vast to grasp in a single effort. Knowing those ecosystem players and their respective needs and objectives – which are often in perpetual flux – poses a major challenge to any city administration, due to the fact that they do not currently possess the right skills and frameworks to make sense of ecosystems. A more intelligent and feasible approach is to take the perspective of ‘needs clusters’. Or in other words: manageable and meaningful ecosystems centred around a specific user need.

The white paper ‘Raising the bar for smart ecosystems frames ecosystem management in smart cities by identifying the different elements of ecosystem development: understanding, scoping, activating, and managing & servicing. This way of structuring the topic helps in grasping the most important issues and challenges ahead.

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