Greek Business File, June-July-August 2020, No 126



The common element of smart cities is the use of information technology to provide better services. Smart cities become more connected by refi ning the communication between city authorities and residents, they provide better mobility by tackling congestion and create a safer surrounding by improving the monitoring and the response time in emergencies. Christos Cabolis, Chief Economist at the IMD World Competitiveness Center in this interview names the benefits and the challenges of the smart city concept.


What does it mean in particular when a city is ‘’smart’’? What are the elements of a smart city?

The concept of smart city has evolved substantially in the last three decades. Yet, there is still no widely accepted definition. Researchers have offered classifications that focus on the notions of an intelligent, knowledgeable, virtual, ubiquitous or, simply, digital city. In ranking smart cities at the IMD World Competitiveness Center, we adopt the approach that cities are socio-technical systems, where technology can expand the quality of and the number of goods and services available to its residents.


Five key areas

In our Smart City Index, we evaluate five key areas: health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities, and governance. We study each area in two dimensions. The first takes into consideration the existing structures of a city and therefore the challenges it faces, while the second refers to the use of technology to tackle these shortcomings.

How does the development of smart cities improve people’s lives?

The common element of smart cities is the use of information technology to provide better services. Technology enhances the benefi ts and reduces the disadvantages of urbanization. Smart cities become more connected by refining the communication between city authorities and residents, they provide better mobility by tackling congestion and create a safer surrounding by improving the monitoring and the response time in emergencies, to name just a few. At the same time, technology leads to better management of scarce resources like water, energy, and clean air. In sum, smart cities become more livable and, in this way, improve the quality of their residents’ lives.

Challenges and initiatives

What are the latest technologies in smart cities? What are the advantages and disadvantages? What are the challenges?

In a recent book produced by IMD in collaboration with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, we study sixteen cities from around the world. We allowed the cities themselves to define the narrative of what makes them smart. Cities identifi ed their own challenges and the smart initiatives they employ to address them. Not surprisingly, each city attempts to confront the big problems it faces and uses the appropriate technology to do so. Thus, for some cities like Buenos Aires and Medellin, the challenges focused on security and transparency of the local city agencies while in others, like Amsterdam and Zurich, the challenge was defined as housing and transportation, and finally other cities, like Boston and Montreal, place emphasis on the environment and health.

The advantages of employing such technologies are that each city alleviates the severity of the initial problem it faced. The disadvantages relate to the actual technology employed. For instance, technologies that track the movement and mobility of residents may affect their privacy. Conversely, if the use of a smart application requires devices that are not easily available to the residents costwise, the outcome may be a fragmented society. The challenges span the tradeoff that a city decides to form in order to create an inclusive and sustainable environment for its citizens.

How can Artificial Intelligence help make our cities more competitive?

Competitive cities are considered those that foster innovation and promote job creation. The digitalization of the smart cities generates vast quantities of data. This is a powerful information bank that, if analyzed and studied appropriately, can alleviate problems in the city. AI can use this type of information and enhance the capacity of city officials to predict the needs and constraints that the city has in terms of mobility, safety, environmental quality, as well as to improve educational services that facilitate job creation.

What are the current examples of the most advanced smart cities?

According to our work, what connects all the interventions by smart cities is sustainability. Smart city authorities focus on providing an environment that increases the wellbeing of their residents who, therefore, are given a prominent voice. To accomplish this, advanced smart cities become a platform that integrates city authorities, residents and the private business sector. What we evaluate in the IMD Smart City Index is how the city’s residents perceive the services that are provided. Cities that top our ranking are Singapore, Zurich, Oslo, Auckland, Taipei and Helsinki among others.

No “one size fits all” strategy

The pursuit of a smart city is to create a ‘’better city’’, but it’s worth remembering that each generation of urban visionaries has tried to address this goal in different ways. What makes smart city exceptional?

There is no “one size fi ts all” strategy to become a smart city. And as we discussed above, what is considered an important and smart intervention really depends on the challenges that a city face. Yet, the important component in moving forth to a city that is livable, inclusive and sustainable is an alignment of all the stakeholders, i.e. the city officials (public sector), the residents, and the private sector, over the scope and strategy of the undertaking. The second –equally important– step and big challenge is the fi nancing of the necessary investments.

The city of Trikala

What about Greece and its prospects? What are the steps we need to follow to meet the high standards of a potential smart city?

Greece has high potential to develop smart cities. In fact, the city of Trikala is the first smart city in the country. Using different smart interventions, Trikala is enhancing transparency and accountability of city officials with projects like the e-complaint system.

The first step in developing a smart city is a clear objective. Answers to questions “why a smart city is needed” and “what are the highest concerns of the residents” will determine the scope and will shape the strategy to be used. An important prerequisite is trust. This will increase the involvement of the citizens in the process of fostering and developing solutions.

Smart cities and Covid-19

Can a smart city help us fight Covid-19? In what respect?

The important quality of a smart city in the current context that will help in fighting Covid-19 is to be resilient. That is, the capacity of a city to persist, adapt and flourish. Smart cities have worked on different aspects of handling crises from cybercrime to natural disasters. Yet, Covid-19 is a very different type of a crisis. In many ways it goes exactly against what cities stand for: it shuts down their economic life and physically isolates the residents. Thus far, cities around the world approached Covid-19 with different strategies. And many cities reacted quite fast, given the nature of the solutions used. It remains to be seen which strategy is the most effective.

Do you believe Covid-19 will affect the concept of smart city?

Undoubtedly several newly established current practices will remain when Covid-19 is placed under control. e-government and e-commerce for instance will become more prevalent and important, I think. There are voices that suggest residents in cities will become more isolationists. For instance, public transport will be underutilized, and other forms will be in vogue like cycling. In the near future, and until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available, there will be reservations on the way we approach life in cities. Yet, in the longer run, resilient cities will adopt and move forth to accommodate the residents’ communities. Even in the strictest times of confinement, communities of people were formed, singing together and entertaining each other from the distance of their balconies in many regions of the world. Smart city is not an ‘end-point’. It is really a process that adjusts to the needs of the community. As the saying goes, smart city is a journey and not a destination.