Smart cities: the promise of public-private co-operation

City policy-makers need to revisit the approaches they adopted to combat urbanization challenges. Traditionally, the provision of urban infrastructure and services to meet people’s basic needs, local economic development and environmental protection has been the exclusive province of the public sector. Urbanization dynamics have evolved over time and call for a transition to a more collaborative approach enabling the private sector, civil society and academia to participate and be a partner in bringing about the desired transformation.

The figure below depicts the four stages of a city’s development. Cities need to identify their current stage and the future transformational initiatives they plan to adopt to climb the development ladder at a rate that is commensurate with the pace of urbanization.


Jim Bowes's picture
Jim Bowes

I could not agree more! However, in my experience even getting a foot in the door to talk to cities can be nearly impossible. I have for 8 years worked towards helping cities reduce the huge, negative impact that outdoor advertising has on our cities.

In just the EU alone, the outdoor media industry consumes huge qualities of natural resources. In just paper alone the amount is equal to a one meter wide piece of paper that wraps our planet 3.9 times each year. Average life cycle 12 days.
In Amsterdam it is estimated that the outdoor media industry generates 7,000 to 9,000 tons of greenhouse gases.

Instead of Amsterdam looking at the benefits of natural-media (techniques that use water, sand, clay, chalk and plants to create messages) they are currently working towards banning it for commercial purposes while the giant outdoor media companies are being protected and given even more leeway. Sure, digital screens will reduce the waste of posters but each screen consumes as much electricity as 2 average Dutch homes. 600 mupis means 1200 2m2 tv screen blasting away with moving images 24/7/365. They will consume as much energy as 2400 houses in Amsterdam. Progress?

Outdoor media pays a lot of money to cities around the globe and therefore buy a lot of influence (they play a positive role in providing street furniture and that is great). I am not against them though I do think that exclusive multi-year contracts discourage innovation as once secured there is no reason to do anything but the bare minimum to leverage profits.

Back on topic. In order for private-public co-operation to succeed, city officials (decision makers not worker bees) need to be accessible to the private sector and we need to get rid of this crazy idea that when businesses work with cities to propose solutions those companies can no longer be granted business for fear of corruption charges. Nonsense!

The public and private sector have a lot to contribute. We have specialised knowledge, we are innovative and flexible and most of us sincerely want to help make our cities a better place to live but in order for that to work, cities need open up, roll up their sleeves and be prepared to have to invest time and energy (though most private companies are willing to do most of the work).

We can do this. Many of us are begging to be involved. I for one would love to help my city but it takes two to tango and so far I have only been dancing alone.

Note: credit where credit is due. Amsterdam IS considering officially allowing natural-media for their own communication purposes and that is a great step forward. I hope that this will lead to reconsidering the ban because the fact is, Amsterdam manages 1000 times more potential media space (dirty horizontal surfaces). These spaces are a very valuable public assets that could be used to help meet budget shortfalls, fund education, healthcare or even be used to clean our cities. We the citizens of our cities pay for cities to manage the public space for us so we should also earn from it.

Here's my TedX talk from a few years ago talking about how our dirty public spaces are actually incredibly valuable public assets.

Herman van den Bosch's picture
Herman van den Bosch

After reading this article I felt uneasy. Let's scrutinise one sentence: "It is essential for the public sector to co-create by fostering comprehensive engagements with knowledge institutes, NGOs/civil society, citizens and especially the private sector." This phrase suggest an all-mighty governmental body that is arranging the contribution of stakeholders to some set of goals. Citizens are one of these stakeholders together with academia and 'especially' (sic) the private sector. This is a very minimalistic view of citizens. I prefer to reverse the picture. If we consider cities as democracies, the citizens are setting the goals, not necessarily as a homogeneous group but also as localised independent communities that create their own spaces. The government of a city (mayor, aldermen and city council) is an initiating and enabling body within the limits of the mandate handed by the citizens. The government of the city never ever should identify with the board of a company. I would not object to the reverse!