The Smart City as a Sharing City?

Dr. Julia Glidden, President, 21c Consultancy, Senior Research Fellow, Vrije Universiteit Brussels

Whilst initial visions of the Smart City encompassed a tech-driven, top-down vision that placed government firmly in the driving seat, in recent years a more collaborative, bottom up vision has begun to emerge.   Within this more ‘human-centric’ conception, a truly Smart City is seen as one that uses the full range of smart technologies e.g. social media, mobile, open APIs to facilitate sharing and co-creation – ultimately making cities more liveable, humane and sustainable in the process.

Under this new paradigm, citizens and government are equal participants in the creation of innovative new solutions to urban challenges. Tech-enabled sharing is the mechanism. Data is the fuel. Empowered by this new paradigm, citizens around the world are actually in the process of rebranding the Smart City as the Sharing City:  from pets and gardens through to bedrooms and cars, a rapidly increasing number are combining smart technologies and data to embrace the notion of ‘collaborative consumption’ or the borrowing and sharing of goods and services.[1]

Toward a New Form of Public-Private Sector Partnership

Google is now by far the most powerful gateway to the Internet’s vast commercial potential. AirBnB, despite owning no hotels, rents out more rooms than the Hilton Hotel Chain has in its entire portfolio.  Uber, despite owning no cars of its own, is now valued at more than many of the world’s largest companies and Fund IT has one of the highest success rates for reward-based crowd-funding sites anywhere in the world.  Yet, to be sustainable a truly Smart, City cannot rely on the Private Sector alone.  Instead, having collected and sat on vast quantities of data for many years, the Public Sector must contribute to the co-creation mix by making this critical raw material open and freely accessible – in a machine-readable format – to citizens and businesses alike.

From fueling the creation of new public services to forging new markets, businesses and jobs, Open Data has the potential to empower citizens, entrepreneurs and developers to spark new economic development, improve service delivery and ultimately change how government works.[2]  Despite all the buzz about the promise of Open Data to create a smarter, more sustainable urban model, however, one still hears very little about the practical steps that a public administrator needs to take to open government data and unleash Public &Private Sector Innovation.  Too often Open Data advocates, for all their commitment and passion, forget that for many cities and towns, especially smaller ones with limited resources, opening and using data is easier said than done.[3]

What it Takes to Get There?

From navigating the minefield of open data obstacles to making a local area a magnet for data-driven businesses, our work on MyNeighbourhood, a €4.8M EU-funded project, has highlighted a number of key ingredients for success. First and foremost, truly Smart Cities are supported by clear leadership from above and a desire and/or need to innovate.  The policies and key IT infrastructures might not be in place.  However, if a city’s leadership has the vision and drive to help unlock the power of Open Data & Innovation, we have found that the rest of the pieces are likely to fall in order.

There will always be certain circumstances in which it is simply not feasible to freely open all data. Wherever possible, though, MyNeighbourhood, in line with its sister project Citadel,[4] strongly recommends adherence to the norms of the Open Data Commons wherein the users and providers of data agree to share and share alike.[5] In addition, MyNeighbourhood recommends that cities take the following steps when opening their data:

  1. Select the Data Set: Remember – simple and small can be good! The key thing is that the data is publically available and has no IPR restrictions on the way it can be used, reused or redistributed.
  2. Publish the Data Set: For ease of use, try to use non-proprietary formats (such as CSV instead of Excel) and structured formats (e.g. not scanned images, PDF etc). But most important of all, put your data out there. If someone wants to use it they will find a way!
  3. Publicise the Data Set: Data needs to be discovered and discoverable to be used. Make sure to post your data on your website or a central catalogue, and tell your citizens it is there!
  1. Engage your Community: From simple public thank you’s and recognition via social media to cash prizes for developing services to solve specific challenges, enlist local stakeholders to help create a innovation ecosystem for openness and sharing.
  1. Keep your Data Up-to-Date: Expectations for current, if not real-time, data are growing. Remember to publish new files as amended or updated data becomes available.

Where We Are Now?                                                                   

Open Data leaders like the United Kingdom and United States now explicitly advocate building and maintaining useful Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) – which enable the public and private sectors alike to dynamically access and share government data – to drive innovation.[6]   API’s represent an important emerging Open Data trend (and pathway to open innovation & co-creation) in that they explicitly acknowledge the value of publishing open government data for third party use.[7]

However, as a recent report by McKinsey notes, Open Data (and the sharing it facilitates) still faces barriers, including privacy concerns and the need for legal and regulatory frameworks. [8]  From health and safety through to taxation, finance and the fate of established industries, questions abound as to how best to respond to the shared economy and the potential for sustainable innovation, jobs and economic growth it unleashes.  To address these challenges in a manner that keeps pace with evolving citizen expectations, many governments are beginning to broaden their digital agenda beyond the efficient and effective delivery of existing public services to toward a more holistic emphasis on what it actually takes to positively channel the disruptive realities underpinning the notion of the Smart City as a Sharing City.

What Have We Learned?

Sharing facilitates public sector savings, environmental sustainability, community empowerment, social cohesion & new business models.  Equally important, Consumers and Business now expect the choice, convenience and cost effectiveness that ‘sharing’ enables.  Consequently, governments everywhere now have little choice but to either adapt to the disruptive change inherent in the Sharing Economy or be left behind.

Regardless of level of experience and preparedness, however, the MyNeighbourhood team has found one consistent theme behind the Smart City as a Sharing City:  with the right leadership and support in place any city or town can start to become an innovation platform for sharing.  It is not necessary nor even feasible to have all the answers – no one does in this era of fast paced change.  But it is necessary to have vision and the willingness to embrace openness and change rather than wish it a way.

[1] A bewildering array of collaborative business endeavours has wreaked havoc on a myriad of industries, transforming the traditional landscape of business and society (Botsman & Rogers, 2010; Gansky, 2010)

[2] McKinsey Report notes seven sectors alone could generate more than $3 trillion a year in additional value as a result of open data

[3] The EUROCITIES Guidebook is a notable exception to this rule.  The guidebook is written by and for cities, and offers tailored information and practical guidelines for cities with limited resources and/or knowledge.  See:

[4] Citadel on the Move is a £4M European Commission-funded Smart City flagship that has helped over 140 local government organisations across all six continents to open and use data to unleash innovation.


[6] APIS are how modern Internet software and apps talk to each other using low cost, existing infrastructure that already exists.




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