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 a focus of many disciplines, ranging from astrophysics to medicine, and as such there is a growing interest in urban matters for researchers and academia. According to a 2015 report by Anthony Townsend for the NYU, it is estimated that by 2030 as much as $2.5 billion will have been invested by universities in researching the dynamics of cities. At the very least, we can say that improving urban life is a joint effort, and that universities – the hotbeds of talent – should be at the very kernel of every smart city’s operating system.

This collaboration is a natural consequence of the changes that both universities and City Halls are undergoing. Back in 2012, during a New Century Cities Network meeting in Zaragoza, Professor Carlo Ratti (one of the world’s top smart city gurus) sketched out his decalogue for a (senseable) smart city. He briefly noted that “new universities” were to play an essential part of the smart cities on the rise in this new millennium. These universities for the new century will probably share two dimensions with the cities of this century in which they are rooted: the diminishing importance of distance, and the never-fading importance of places. In a post published in 2014, Ricardo Cavero, my ex-boss and long-time friend, broke it down in simple terms, adding the networked effect: future universities will be increasingly de-localized, organized in distributed interconnected hubs. But “places” will still matter.

Aside from their contribution to academics and research, Universities have helped forge a sense of European identity through the Erasmus program. On the technological front, the Eduroam Wi-Fi network is ubiquitous at university buildings around the globe, connecting people to places. And it is this very same notion of places that the new universities can further improve through an enhanced collaboration with the City Hall. Some months ago, another friend of Open Your City, journalist Jon Glasco, wrote about the potential of universities for making cities smarter. According to his insights, as the complexity of urban challenges grows, so does the need for knowledge.

The knowledge transfer between universities and cities has been recently boosted by the European Commission’s flagship funding program for smarter communities: Horizon 2020. Yet partnerships within this program are frequently trans-national, leading cities to become testbeds for research projects developed on the other side of the continent. Universities help distant cities, with which they have no physical ties. The Urban Innovative Actions program, also a European Commission initiative, requires the partnerships to be local and encourages cities to engage with the fabric of society to work on a challenge-first-technology-second approach. In contrast with Horizon 2020, this naturally leads to more radical innovations and helps to develop more solid relationships and sustainable solutions beyond funding; a good substrate for growing truly healthy smart city projects.

As always, the devil is in the details. Once agreed on the ‘what’, let’s look at ‘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. I recently participated in a recent research on the same 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 people, 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 should adopt a timeless vocabulary. Both social sciences and more technical faculties of Universities can work side-by-side with City Halls to improve 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 hooked up to an 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 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 soon enough new umbrella structures will be created, based on the quadruple-helix open innovation model that is already happening around hubs like Etopia or Grandvile Island’s future innovation hub. Structures that should be shielded from partisan debates. After all, if modern cities are a kind of new polis or city-state, then we should let the relationship between cities and universities be just that: a matter for the State.

Edited by Nicolas Cook

This article is published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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