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Every year the Smart City Expo World Congress is held in Barcelona. For three days governments, start-ups and tech enthusiasts share their ideas, living labs and tech solutions with each other. Thousands of people come together as one network of smart(est) cities in the world. While I’m inspired by the grotesque feeling of the event, I’m also curious about where the smart city trend that seems to be shaping the cities of tomorrow will take us.

On one hand I’m a big enthusiast for events like this. It seems like the whole world is cropped into one space full of creativity, trends and game changing tech. These events are big for their marketing and PR purposes and do well on creating some sort of FOMO. That is on the other hand exactly why I feel two sided about smart city and mobility expo’s.

The rush to become the ‘smartest’ city is massive. The competitiveness between cities themselves seems to blindside smart city focussed governments. This results in major exposure for new tech, dashboards, etc. But in the mean time less focus on solving the major challenges cities are actually facing. While connecting with different delegates from around the whole world it seems like most cities cope with the same challenges. For example increasing crowd- and urban mobility challenges, increasing traffic jams, (cyber) safety and future housing for citizens. In my opinion the intrinsic drive and willingness to tackle those urgencies should be bigger than the urge to become the smartest city. That way we might break through the pattern that everyone is innovating in their own bubble.

That being said I’m wondering what qualifies a city as the ‘smartest’ and who defines and decides upon those criteria. From my experience at expo’s like the SCEWC in Barcelona I would like to suggest a few:

1) The most collaborative city is the most innovative city

Cities tend to find their way to the world of start-ups very well. Witnessing the start-up scene being represented on large scale during the SCEWC. For example Chile solely created a podium for Chilean start-ups to expose their solutions during the expo.

On the other hand it seems that collaboration between cities themselves are not at all the main focus here. The city of Barcelona exposed on a big separate stand while all other Spanish cities exposed in the country pavilion of Spain.

For the last decade collaboration in between ‘competitors’ is in fashion. Some commercial organisations normalised making money off lucrative collaborations between competing businesses. This way they learn from each other but also grow the market together. They create a bigger pie instead of eating their own muffin.

This could be translated effectively towards collaboration on topics like innovation in between different cities. Especially because cities are more and more focused on generating and collecting ‘open data’ for new tech solutions. A good pillar for measuring how innovative a city is, is not only to look at which innovations a city has invented itself (or the start-ups in this specific city), but also the extent to which a city can effectively deploy and adapt innovations from the (global) market and especially other cities.

2) The capacity to extract inspiration from the real world

Definitely the most inspiring moment during the whole three days that we were at the SCEWC was surprisingly not at the expo itself. It came to our conclusion that every time we travel abroad for these kind of events, we get inspired by the people outside of the conference.

The second day of the expo we took a taxi in the morning to go to the expo location. As we joined the hectic traffic of the Barcelona rush hour we explained the driver that we went to the smart city and urban mobility conference. While he steered his way tactically through the slow moving traffic he passionately explained how he taught the municipality could improve liveability and face mobility challenges.

When we arrived at the expo location he asked us one thing: “I can’t afford the ticket to go the the expo. Can you please go in my name and pass on these ideas to improve our city?”

Whenever you’re open to really look around and connect in the city itself you’ll come across the brightest minds and most inspiring people. This itself is for us part of the creative process that we take with us in every project we’re working on.

3) Clarity and transparency about urgent challenges as a driver for new collaborations, innovative ideas and data driven solutions.

Expo’s like the one in Barcelona is always a bit of a ‘see and be seen’ phenomenon. Which is great because it attracts all kinds of people in the power to make a difference. I was really delighted to hear and see mayors speak up to improve their cities with data driven solutions.

The thing I would like to prevent is the fact that we focus more on the solutions than on the challenge that is being solved. The fact all kind of bright people from all around the world come together should be inviting to face challenges together. Therefore I would suggest to not only show the success story on an expo, but also be transparent about the challenges cities are still facing. Because maybe you come across a city that already innovated their way out of that specific problem.

The SCEWC this year was inspiring and taught me a lot about what we define as a ‘smart city’. Let’s be transparent about the challenges that we’re facing. Let’s find inspiration while connecting with people in places where you might not expect it. Let’s take that transparency and inspiration to collaborate with other smart cities across the globe to face challenges together and come up with even more groundbreaking data and tech solutions. We tried to give the taxi driver in Barcelona a voice. Now let’s pay it forward.

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