‘Cities need to find their own identities’
7 min

‘Cities need to find their own identities’

You have to take small steps when it comes to smart cities – after all, it’s impossible to implement it all. That’s what smart city expert Boyd Cohen had to say. In our interview, the American who lives in Barcelona talked about what motivates him, his work and approaches for making Switzerland a smart region.

Boyd Cohen, why, as an American, do you live in Barcelona?

Barcelona has been a pioneer for quite some time when it comes to smart cities and urban innovations. I always kept an eye on developments in Barcelona from a distance from South and North America – and wanted to become a part of its innovative ecosystem.

You have to say that as a smart city expert.

Well, there were other reasons too. I travel a lot in Europe because of my job – and I can reach other European cities from Barcelona pretty easily. I also have personal reasons. When I met my wife, each of us came up with three cities where we could picture ourselves living in the future. Barcelona was at the top of both our lists. We love the weather, the food, the culture and how pedestrian-friendly it is. I don’t have a driving licence in Barcelona because I can move around the city freely by public transport and other mobility services. And in general, Barcelona just provides a high quality of life…

Smart city expert Boyd Cohen
Boyd Cohen: ‘You have to take small steps when it comes to smart cities.’

… that you didn’t have in the US?

Right. In my opinion, the quality of life in general is much better in Europe than in the US. European cities are very pedestrian-friendly; you have more public transport, a better infrastructure, more culture and history. You don’t have to battle traffic as much because not as many people depend on cars.

That is a major advantage from an environmental viewpoint. The US doesn’t exactly have the best reputation at the moment.

It’s frightening and frustrating in 2019 to have the president of one of the most important countries in the world say that he doesn’t believe in climate change. But science is not about believing; it’s about reading and understanding research results. But Trump is dodging that and prophesying economic problems if we pay attention to climate change. In 2011, I showed in my book Climate Capitalism how the government can adopt and benefit from a low-carbon economy. Most of the world has recognised how important it is to have a clean economy, renewable energies and electric vehicles. That mentality still isn’t very widespread in the US.

Do you view yourself as a do-gooder with your books, articles and speeches?

I knew I wanted to change the world when I started writing my doctoral thesis 20 years ago. Back then, I had this idea of a career where I could change the world and earn money doing it. And I think I’ve done that.

How did you become interested in the subject of smart cities?

When I was working on Climate Capitalism, I was frustrated by how slowly the United Nations’ work on climate protection was progressing. I started asking myself where climate protection was happening quickly – and found out that the subject is often and quickly tackled at an urban level.

Why?

Mayors live in the cities they represent. That means they are directly affected by local environmental problems. They also have a more direct relationship with their voters. And on a local level, climate change is not politicised as much. The Conference of Mayors, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Covenant of Mayors in Europe: all these urban movements and associations are dedicated to climate protection. That made me realise that cities should be focused on climate protection. While researching, I also came across intelligent power grids that are being used to try to improve the efficiency of power distribution in cities. Intelligent power grids were followed by smart cities.

You developed a Smart City Wheel where you display the criteria for a smart city in a simple diagram. Although the wheel may be valid for large cities with several million inhabitants, do smaller cities have the same prerequisites for becoming smart?

Smart City Wheel
The Smart City Wheel

I think the wheel can also be used for small cities. Implementing smart city projects in a small city can be less complex than in a big city. In some circumstances, you might run into less red tape and comprehensive solutions can be implemented faster. Establishing a free wifi network in Geneva is easier than in Jakarta or Bangkok.

That said, smaller cities don’t have as many financial, educational, technological or human resources.

You have to take small steps when it comes to smart cities. We can’t implement everything – and most certainly not right away. What’s important is to tackle the problems that actually have an impact on our citizens. I like it when decision-makers take to the streets and talk to real people to find out what they would like to change most about their city. Understanding citizens’ concerns provides a basis for smart city strategies.

If a city doesn’t have to completely fulfil the Smart City Wheel, is there any point to your and other smart city rankings, which list the smartest cities in the world?

To be honest, I’m less enthusiastic about the rankings than I used to be. When I created the rankings, I wanted to increase global awareness about what a smart city is and how you might measure it, and draw media attention to it – and I wanted to get people talking. People are competitive by nature, and the smart city rankings were meant to encourage that. But now I don’t feel they’re useful anymore. Usually when I see smart city rankings, I don’t really believe in their results.

Why do you doubt them now?

I guess I’ve become more interested in what makes every city unique instead of comparing cities with one another. It’s better for a city to develop its own strategy instead of worrying about how it will rank compared with Barcelona, Vienna or wherever.

You just recently revealed a new smart city diagram: The Happy Cities Hexagon. Is it meant to replace the Smart City Wheel?

Happy Cities Hexagon
The Happy Cities Hexagon

They are two different tools for me. The wheel is meant more for city administrations: it shows the options they have to improve their city and make it smarter. The hexagon focuses more on citizens and shows what makes citizens happy in their city.

How can these models be applied to Switzerland?

Switzerland should be considered more of a smart region instead of trying to make every small town smart on its own. A smart regional strategy could be possible. At the same time, you need to allow for local culture and uniqueness. To say that Switzerland is just one big, smart and completely homogeneous region would be the wrong approach. Switzerland as a region is composed of many epicentres with different cultures, languages and interests. Look at it like a football team: a team where every member, such as goalkeepers, strikers or midfielders, plays a different role. The Happy Cities Hexagon could lead to projects on a local level, whereas the Smart City Wheel could serve as an overarching strategy for the whole of Switzerland – for example, through associations that try to find a common denominator for the subject of smart cities.

With your start-up IoMob, you rely on blockchain technology. Should it also be used in Swiss cities?

Not necessarily. The aim is to have a city where people are able to achieve their goals, where they’re happy, where there’s more integration and less crime – and where there’s also progress to attract innovators. And although I’m a fan of blockchain technology, that doesn’t mean it has to be used in every city. As I said, cities need to find their own identities and work towards that. Nonetheless, there are what you might call universal conditions that make all cities smart: inclusiveness, no major social inequality, good education, cultural activities. You should be able to find those things in every city.

About

Boyd Cohen (*1970) is a city and climate strategist who works in the fields of sustainable development and smart cities. Cohen is Dean of Research at EADA Business School and co-founder of the start-up IoMob, which is developing a blockchain-based platform for mobility services and end-customers. Cohen received his doctorate from the University of Colorado in Strategy & Entrepreneurship and is the co-author of Climate Capitalism (2011). In recent years, Cohen has received recognition for his work on smart cities, in particular for his Smart City Wheel and annual rankings of smart cities.

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