To smarten up, cities must rely on dialogue not just technology

Creating smart cities able to prepare for future challenges and attract talent demands reaching out to the community, and not just adopting faceless digital technologies, experts said at a conference on Wednesday.

Trevor McIntyre, Global Director, Placemaking and International, IBI Group, and Lina Liakou, Managing Director, Europe and the Middle East Global Resilient Cities Network, were among the speakers at the annual conference held online by ULI Greece and Cyprus which looked at how cities can prepare for future challenges, health crises and global warming.

McIntyre said that smart cities are not simply about plugging in the right hardware but also getting the community involved in decisions through dialogue.

"The smart city needs to accommodate what people need, for example, how they want their children to live. This involves bringing people to a common platform and introducing them to their rights. Then they acquire a voice and this helps cities solve problems," he said.

Changes made to large urban centres in recent years aimed mainly at making them more environmentally friendly have come under the spotlight due to the pandemic. Cities offering large public green spaces, such as New York and London, have been hit just as hard as those with few open park areas on hand, like Athens.

In other cases, residents are ditching their bicycles and preferring the safety of their cars in a bid to avoid the risk of contracting the virus. This has been the case in Oslo, despite the extensive network of bike tracks developed by city authorities and efforts made to increase safety for cyclists.

Liakou said that cities that have so far best handled the pandemic are the ones that quickly adapted to the new conditions, shutting down roads and increasing space available offered to pedestrians, allowing for better social distancing, as she cited the example of Milan.

Building a resilient urban centre though needs time, adds Liakou, and continuity.

"Cities don't magically become resilient, it is a long process. We will never see it, if each new administration starts everything from scratch, continuity is needed."

She went on to stress the importance of city planning in helping attract talent - a key issue as cities rival against each other in a bid to convince companies that they offer the best pool of human resources.

"Drawing talent involves creating a living city people know offers good infrastructure. The more you provide the ex-pats and talented workers, the more they will understand this and cherish this initiative. Private sector initiatives need to be combined with urban planning issues to draw talent back to a city," she said.