An urbanizing world and one size fits all solutions

By Manu Fernández | 2016

The smart city as urban proposal seeks to provide a framework to explain and sort out the digital presence in the city that is becoming normal in the urban realm. As such, it represents the new urban utopia proposed as an all-encompassing explanation of many phenomena of change coalescing in urban life and city management. The complexity of the transition to a world (progressively) ubiquitous and (mostly) urban requires giving meaning and coherence to explain this reality.

The smart city has emerged triumphant as a model and social theory, integrating or co-opting previous narratives (sustainability) but using the usual claims (bureaucratic planning and better management of urban development). Despite its totalizing ambitions, the debate on smart cities has been very limited, biased, incomplete and precipitate. After starring in recent years much of the institutional debate (in the form of conferences, plans, pilot projects, etc.), the smart city is not able to explain itself understandably to discuss their explicit goals and implicit consequences.

The meaning of the technological innovations attached to the smart city storytelling in such an urban world (by percentage of population living in cities but also by the increasing number of large urban agglomerations) are so disparate (a world of urban realities as different as Lagos, New York or Jakarta) and are yet to be explored. It is not possible to keep on understanding and depicting technology as an alien space that we have to assume for granted, and society (cities) as a mere recipient of that technology. In the same way, it is not possible to frame the debate of the smart city as a relationship of cause and effects between the city as generic and technology as something that evolves independently outside the social reality.

This is especially symptomatic in the case of different urban contexts represented by what we might call the global north and south. While the litany of any public presentation of the smart cities is expected to begin asserting the largely urban character of the world's population, immediately its solutions are presented in renderings that resemble at best an idealized and futuristic vision of a modern city western. This denies, in principle, the point of departure since the protagonists of this global urbanization are forgotten. The particular technological imaginary of the smart city plays a generic message aspiring to be meaningful in any context, be it London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Shanghai or Bangalore without considering the local specificities related to their structural, economic, social conditions that should be the starting point of any exploration of urban futures. Lack of contextualization is often present in many of the failed projects of implementing smart city projects.

As a result of the above, the range of solutions related to the smart city is usually presented generically, regardless of or social, technical, political, demographic or cultural circumstances. "One size fits all" defines this type of solution (smart grids, sensors, big data or any other product) that are meant to work and fit in Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Valladolid, Detroit or Santiago de Chile.

Manu Fernández

As a researcher and consultant of Urban Politics, with over 15 years of experience, Manu has been involved in projects related to local sustainability and the analysis of urban economies. After working in Bakeaz (2002-2006) and Naider (2006-2012), he currently works as a consultant at anteverti and independently in different areas of interest, including adaptative urban planning strategies and activation of empty spaces, the intersection between the social and the digital in the urban life from the citizens perspective, and finally, the impulse of economic dynamization projects in cities. He is author of the blog Ciudades a Escala Humana (


Amador Ferrer

Architect and Professor at Universitat Ramón Llull

Aníbal Gaviria

Alcalde de la ciudad de Medellín (2012-15)

Bahaaeddin Alhaddad

Space Business Development and Urban Remote Sensing at Starlab Ltd

Beth Simone Noveck

Founder and Director. Governance Lab

Bharati Chaturvedi

Founder and Director. Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group

Boyd Cohen

Professor of Entrepreneurship

Carlos Vayas

Metropolitan Director. Municipality of Quito

Cecile Faraud

Circular Economy Lead. Peterborough City Council

Cristina Garrido

Urban Innovation Consultant, anteverti

Dan Lewis

Chief Urban Risk Reduction, UN Habitat Chief of the Urban Risk Reduction Unit

Darko Radovic

Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Keio University

Edward Glaeser

Professor of Economics, Harvard University. Urban Economist.

Ellis J. Juan

Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative General Coordinator. Inter-American Development Bank

Esteve Almirall

Assoc. Professor. ESADE Business Law School

Gabriela Gómez-Mont

Chief Creativity Officer at Laboratorio para la Ciudad. México City

Gaetan Siew

CEO Global Creative Leadership Initiative

Inazio Martínez de Arano

Head of Office in European Forest Institute Mediterranean Regional Office

Juliana Rotich

Executive Director. Ushahidi

Kumaresh Chandra Mishra

Deputy Secretary General Habitat III Conference. United Nations

Manu Fernández

Founder. Human Scale City

Markku Markkula

President of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR). European Union

Pankaj Ghemawat

Global Professor of Management and Strategy. IESE

Parvati Nair

Director of the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility

Rashiq Fataar

Urbanist and Director of Our Future Cities

Rebecca Smith

Active Alumni at the European Youth Parliament. anteverti Consultant

Ricard Garriga

Co-founder Menorca Millenials

Shannon Lawrence

Director Global Initiatives. C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group

Stephen Goldsmith

Professor. Harvard Kennedy School