Smart Cities vs. Smart Communities: Empowering Citizens not Market Economics

Michael Gurstein1

1Editor in Chief: The Journal of Community Informatics, Vancouver, Canada. Email:

"Smart Cities" has become a flavour of the day for governments, the private sector, even academics all of whom see this meme as being a way to translate the "hype", err "glitz", err "glory" of new tech-digital technology to the grimy old practices and policies of urban agglomerations and urban management.

The fact that according to the UN, sometime over the last year or so the balance between those living in urban areas and those living in rural areas tipped irrevocably over to the urban side. Now those who had always hankered to focus on the rather richer and more desirable (at least when it comes to actually doing field implementations, studies, property developments etc.) environs of big cities could, with all due conscience, begin to ignore the much poorer, less accessible and generally less "sexy", rural dwellers.

Precisely what might be meant by a "smart city" has become a bit of play thing but is now exercising the imagination of the PR folks in major tech corporations and the offices of senior politicians in jurisdictions great and small. Wikipedia gives us this definition: a smart city is an emerging conceptual view of a city that promotes the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to engage with citizens to develop social capital and intellectual capital, to make better use of hard infrastructure (physical capital), reduce usage of environmental capital and support smart growth (sustainable economic development).

I'm not sure that helps a lot, but perhaps a definition from the Whole Earth Catalogue of corporate America-Forbes Magazine would provide a bit of focus and clarity to what is meant by Wikipedia's fuzzy generalities. In an article entitled "Smart Cities - A $1.5 Trillion Market Opportunity" the author from the consulting firm Frost and Sullivan identifies eight key aspects that define a Smart City: "smart governance, smart energy, smart building, smart mobility, smart infrastructure, smart technology, smart healthcare and smart citizen as follows". In an associated presentation the firm goes into somewhat more detail on each of these "smartnesses".

So what does this tell us about the nature of "city smartness" as it is currently being defined:


So "Smart Cities" particularly in Less Developed Countries are ways of turning urban environments into gold mines for consultants, hardware and software companies and redoing the city in the image and for the benefit of its most prosperous and well-serviced inhabitants and in the meantime transferring additional resources and benefits from the poor to the rich.

But another type of "Smart" program is possible-one that is focused on social inclusion, enabling citizens, supporting communities-a community informatics model. This would be a smart program where the emphasis is on "Smart Communities" rather than "Smart Cities" and enabling and empowering citizens and supporting their individual and communal quests for well-being rather than turning cities into a series of cascading neo-liberalized markets-for services, for infrastructure, for shelter. Thus the basic model of the "Smartness" could be one that included:

There are tremendous opportunities for politicians and government officials who can see past the buzz and the hype of "Smart Cities" to apply ICTs to support citizens as they use this technology to enable themselves and their communities and in this transform their cities from the bottom up.