Smart Univercities

Emily Carr’s University building in Vancouver’s Grandville Island (Canada). Source: The Province

There is little doubt about the positive impact that a strong collaboration between cities and universities can bring to our societies. Cities are the subject of study from multidisciplinary angles. From astrophysics to medicine, the urban question is growingly interesting for researchers and academia. As much as $2,5 Billion is to be spent (or invested), by 2030 from universities to unveil the mistery of cities’ dynamics, according to a 2015 report by Anthony Townsend for the NYU. From the cities’ perspective, the least we can say is that improving urban life is a joint effort, and that our most talented institutions – universities – should be at the very kernel of every smart city’s operating system.

This collaboration is a natural process that results from the changes that both universities and city halls are experiencing. Let’s go back to 2012. In a meeting in Zaragoza during one of the sessions of the New Century Cities network, professor Carlo Ratti, one of the world’s top smart city gurus, drew his decalogue for a (senseable) smart city, in which he briefly noted that “new universities” were to be an essential part of the smart cities rising at the dawn of the millenium. These universities for the new century will probably share two dimensions with the new century cities in which they are rooted: the diminishing weight of distance and the never-fading importance of the place. In a post published in 2014, Ricardo Cavero, ex-boss and long-time friend, developed it in simple terms, adding the networked effect: new universities will be increasingly de-localized educational institutions, organized in distributed and connected hubs. But “places” will still matter.

Aside from its academic or research contribution, Universities have forged the sense of Europe through the Erasmus program. On the technology front, the Eduroam Wi-Fi network is ubiquitous around every single university building around the globe, connecting people to places. And it is this very same notion of place that these new universities can further improve through an enhanced collaboration with the City Hall. Another friend of Open Your City, journalist Jon Glasco, wrote some months ago about the potential of universities in making cities smarter. According to his insights, as urban challenges grow in complexity, the need for knowledge increases.

The knowledge transfer between universities and cities has been recently boosted by the European Commission’s flagship funding program for smarter communities: Horizon 2020. It happens, though, that partnerships within the umbrella of Horizon 2020 are frequently trans-national. More often than not, cities become testbeds for research projects developed at the other side of the continent, and universities help distant cities, with which no physical ties exist. The Urban Innovative Actions program, also from the European Commission, requires the partnerships to be local and encourages cities to engage with the civic tissue to work on a challenge-first-technology-second approach. As opposed to Horizon 2020, this naturaly leads to more radical innovations and contributes to develop more solid relationships and sustainable solutions beyond funding. A good fertilizer for growing truly healthy smart city projects.

As always, the devil is in the details. Once agreed on the ‘what’, let’s see ‘how’ this collaboration between cities and universities can be made effective. In this sense, the EUnivercities project built a practical framework for these collaborations between cities and ‘their’ universities. Many of its conclusions are also present in a recent research on the topic sponsored by the British Council , whose interest in international city policies in the Brexit era is perhaps a proof of the increasing importance of cities (polis) as economic and cultural subjects. According to the British Council, the next generation of smart cities will have a more human face and will be more about social and knowledge ecosystems than about technology. To create these ecosystems, eight steps (not necessarily sequential) should be taken: 1) Draw maps of current initiatives, 2) Connect persons together, 3) Create trust, 4) Engage with local communities, 5) Work in challenge mode, 6) Foster learning for all partners, 7) Acknowledge that place matters and 8) Be agile.

Challenges, agility, place, trust, engagement, personal links, maps, describe meaningful and durable concepts, while 5G, IoT, Big Data are ephemeral hypes that will rapidly become obsolete. When writing about the smart city of the future, we better adopt a time-proof vocabulary. Universities (both their social and technical disciplines) and city halls can also work side-by-side for the future of cities and avoid them look like a bad, aging, sci-fi story.

As opposed to a dystopic future, human smart cities could build e-topias instead. On the occasion of a past visit to Vancouver, I could stroll trough the vibrant Grandville Island, where the Emily Carr University Arts building sits. As I wandered through its gorgeous organic market I received the Eduroam Wi-Fi signal. From 2021, the building will re-open as an innovation hub that “will house a mix of arts-focused and innovative organizations as well as restaurants and services, and is part of the Granville Island 2040 vision of the island over the next two decades.”

8,400 km East, we have long time cherished the dream of strenghething the ties between our city hall and our University, advocating for a more human concept of the smart city. There are so many fields of mutual interest between cities and universities that sooner than later new umbrella structures will be created, based on the quadruple-helix open innovation model that is already happening around hubs like Etopia or the future Grandvile Island’s innovation hub. Structures that should be shielded from partisan debates. After all, if modern cities are a kind of new polis (city-states), then let the relationship between cities and universities be that: a State affair.


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