About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Smart Cities: what we’re doing and why

During 2014 Nesta will be involved in over a dozen projects designed to make a reality of the promise of smart cities. This blog summarises some of our analysis, and lists the main relevant projects we’re involved in.

I’m also involved in the field through other routes – including being part of a recently formed Ministerial Committee, and co-chairing the London LEP committee responsible for science, innovation and creativity.

A high level view

Digital technologies are affecting almost everything that happens in cities, from governance to transport, education to health. This inevitably makes it hard to define the boundaries of the ‘smart cities’ agenda, which could cover almost anything. Its core concern is with issues of digital technology use that are particular to cities (ie not relevant in the same way to rural areas, towns etc). These include infrastructure provision, transport, planning in high density areas, but exclude 95% of the issues of digital technology applications.

Yet such a narrow focus misses much that’s most interesting in this space. Indeed the main limitation of a lot of what’s covered by the ‘smart cities’ agenda is its narrow focus on hardware, and, in particular, the marketing of hardware and a relatively limited range of software applications.

Yet if we’re really interested in how cities can be made smart, we need to think much more holistically about what technologies make possible – and how people can use them.

Smart failures

For many years it’s been recognised that the smart cities agenda is paying much too little attention to the human dimension, leading to the relative failures of projects like New Songdo in Korea and Masdar in the UAE (ie cities that are potentially more efficient in terms of physical flows but not very liveable).

Most smart city projects have been developed by engineers, technologists and planners with insufficient attention to social dynamics, psychology, anthropology and other insights into the ‘social life’ of cities. And too much of the work has been supply push rather than demand pull, leading to many applications that aren’t particularly wanted or valued by the public (a problem shared by the open data field).

In some cases the smart cities agenda has been explicitly authoritarian (with the panopticons of central control rooms, CCTVs and surveillance).

Yet despite the huge sums invested there is very little evidence about what works or where the real returns on investment have been. The smart cities field has been dominated by the sales efforts of firms like IBM and Cisco, who have come up with lots of impressive applications, but without providing much intelligence about the field itself, or for that matter much credible guidance for mayors and others as to what to buy and why.

What Nesta is doing

  • We now have a wide range of projects relevant to this field all of which are trying to improve the interface between technologies and people – so that smart cities projects deliver real value and don’t repeat the mistakes of recent years. These are the main ones:
  • Mayors Challenge for Europe (with Bloomberg): many of the applications will involve tech (like the US winner of the Mayors’ Challenge which involved the creative use of data to improve children’s educational prospects). As of December 2013, 182 cities had already signed up.
  • Open Data Challenge Series: we’re running seven themes including environment, crime, education and jobs, offering prizes to the best solutions. Most of these aim to generate useful new applications in cities – covering everything from energy use to parental feedback.
  • Commons4Europe: we’re working with partners to better share good new web tools and apps across European cities, including interesting pilots around 'bottom up broadband' in which communities (particularly in Spain) have opted out of mainstream IPs to work with SMEs trialling local high speed networks or set up their own DIY broadband infrastructure.
  • Through our research budgets we’re supporting a series of innovative data projects looking at economic dynamics in cities, connections and clusters. We seem to have the best tools anywhere for analysing the detail of creative occupations and sectors. One offshoot of this is the design for a collective intelligence platform for city labour markets.
  • Our i-teams work on innovation capacities within city governments is generating case studies on great examples of technology innovation that will be published with Bloomberg in a few months’ time.
  • Digital technologies and education: almost all our work in this area has a smart cities aspect (though oddly education has tended to be excluded from the SC field), and we’re spreading out into new ways of promoting digital making of all kinds in cities.
  • Our work on systemic change in health and care – People Powered Health – and this year’s rapid results initiative are really about linking new organisational models to technology at the level of towns and cities.
  • Our Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, although not directly about smart cities, is mainly backing urban projects, ranging from digital enhancement of festivals across cities, to virtual museums and talking statues.
  • Our research work on digital social innovation includes a living map of global innovations, many of which transform the urban experience. For example helping blind people navigate a city or supporting civic action.
  • D-CENT is an ambitious new EU-funded programme designing platforms for democratic engagement and economies. We’re working with a range of partners including W3C. The money elements will be primarily city based, drawing on lessons from projects like the Nanto.
  • Collaborative consumption/shared cities: we fund many collaborative consumption projects across the UK and support the world’s leading portal on the topic (Rachel Botsman’s www.collaborativeconsumption.com), as well as working closely with cities like Seoul which are pushing hard on sharing city platforms.
  • We’re interested in developing better platforms to link higher education, big firms and SMEs in cities, and better understanding of what works and why – the topic of an event we’re running with NCUB in the spring.
  • We’re looking at possible future work in China, focusing on the lessons to be learned from their many smart city experiments, as a follow on to our recent study on China’s innovation system.
  • A final plug: we’ve also done some work on future cities, such as our Future Londoners personas and the accompanying future cities event.

As you can see this is quite a broad agenda, and full of very exciting projects. We’ll be providing updates on all of these and developing our own thinking on how the smart cities idea can become more sophisticated, and more useful.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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