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Is smart city a happy city?

In the article Decoding The Smart City Aalto and TalTech authors Teija Vainio, Elise Hodson, Michel Nader Sayún and Ralf-Martin Soe bring out 4 generations on how the concept of smart city has been developing: 


 “Smart city is a movement rather than a rigid academic domain, having different viewpoints and being interdisciplinary. The term is often (mis)used for self-congratulatory marketing purposes – which city does not want to label itself as a smart city? Furthermore, the concept has been dynamically developing over time, in line with developments in urban infrastructure. Within the last two decades, the instrumental goal of smart cities was to digitalise analogue processes of city governments (“digital city“), which is largely achieved now, similar to the process of moving from phones to smartphones. This was followed by a concept of “internet of things city“ where not only databases but also different urban devices can exchange data in real time. This has not been achieved fully due to business interests and data privacy related challenges. The third wave, currently mainstream in Europe, puts a focus on sustainability with digital solutions helping to attain climate-neutrality in urban environments (“net-zero city“). However, from a societal perspective, citizen perspectives and participation are becoming more central in smart city research, combining technology-related studies with the aim of increasing the wellbeing of urban residents. This fourth wave, still hypothetical, could be labelled as “happy city,“ or a “people first” vision where design research with different participatory methods and a human-centric approach could have a bigger role.” 


Understanding of the term “smart city” can vary according to a person's understanding due to their professional background. Researchers and experts from different fields can understand it very differently and therefor criteria what makes a city a smart city and a happy city is quite versatile. 


We asked FinEst Centre for Smart Cities researchers Kaija Veskioja, Sara Thabid, Pauline Baudens and Environmental psychologist Silver Sternfeldt to ponder from there point of view what makes a city a smart city and furthermore is smart city a happy city? 

Dr. Kaija Veskioja, Research Fellow  
#Energy #Sustainabilitytransitions 

Cities can represent a skyrocketing number of challenges with living environment due to the extremely high concentration of population and related human activity. Thus, they are also a perfect breeding ground for urban experimentation and innovation. Cities play an essential role in sustainability transitions: they are places that urgently need systematic change and they are the ones that currently showcase many sustainability initiatives and interventions (Fuenfschilling et al. 2019). ‘Sustainability transitions’ comprise long-term and large-scale disruptive societal changes to more sustainable living systems (Loorbach et al. 2017, Markard et al. 2012, Geels 2018) with less resources and pollution and more efficiency and effectiveness. As sustainability transitions are a multi-level phenomenon (Loorbach et al. 2017) – systemic change is the result of an interplay of a variety of changes at different governance levels and in different economic, social and environmental domains – the city level can be seen as one of the lowest and closest to its residents/we are in the end the ones who initiate change. Therefore, the smartness of a city can lead to a happier city if it is based on knowledge sharing and collaboration across all levels of society. Smart cities can even tackle one of the biggest challenges of our time – climate change – through green energy transition (Chenic et al. 2022) creating a more healthier and sustainable living environment for us all using smart systems and data. 


Pauline Baudens, Early-Stage Researcher, PhD Candidate 
#Gender #Digitalisation #Inclusion 


“Smart City” projects are multiplying around the world. In some cases, ultramodern cities are created from scratch. In other cases, public services are deployed and/or optimised. Unfortunately, many “Smart” projects carried out around the world do not respond to any public interest and raise the question of the exclusion of the most vulnerable people. In India, private city and gated community projects are multiplying at the request of the wealthiest people who wish to live in absolute separation from other social classes. Those gigantic real estate projects are commonly called “Smart”, but excessively privatise public space. Furthermore, the “Smart City”, understood as a utopia, presupposes being inhabited by a population that is itself “Smart”, highly educated and able to understand the functionalities the city offers. Such place becomes inaccessible for people without financial resources, who cannot afford smartphones and well-designed housing with “smart” management of garbage, water, electricity, etc. Such “Smart City” excludes. However, it is possible to differently interpret the concept, which can be used as a means of inclusion, driving forward projects aiming to improve public services and the access to all. 

Silver Sternfeldt web.jpg

Silver Sternfeldt, Environmental psychologist  
#Environmentalpsychology #Well-being 


Over the last decades smart city has been one of the most prominent urban development models. Technological advances have made this idea more attainable than ever. Big data could help to optimize the dynamics of the city to fight problems resulting from rapid urbanisation. Smart city is supposedly the answer to the sustainability issues and the degrading well-being of the urbanised society. Smart cities are said to be people-oriented, but countless often controversial metrics and definitions make the term too vague. So, it is still complicated to support the health, security and the well-being of the citizens through the smart city solutions. 


The concept of sustainability can be addressed through three factors - economical, environmental and societal. Studies point to a too narrow focus in urban development policies with attention mostly on infrastructural improvements. Thus, the economical and environmental domains have gained more attention leaving social aspects neglected. Social sustainability is the ability of the generation to create and maintain healthy and liveable communities and neighbourhoods that promote well-being. What contributes to strong communities and neighbourhoods in the smart city paradigm, is still largely misunderstood or not taken into consideration. 


Evidence-based urban planning and policy making should therefore incorporate best practices also from behavioural sciences to understand not only how people behave, but why they behave in certain ways. Person-environment fit, a term from environmental psychology, unifies the person and the surrounding environment into a larger unit of analysis. Where the fit is better, the environment affords people to behave in a desired way while supporting their autonomy and goals which leads to empowerment and higher well-being. So, to understand the dynamics between behaviour, well-being and urban environment we need to have good data about people too. This includes changes in their stress levels, emotional responses to the environment, attachment to and attitudes towards a place, and motivation to harm or defend the values and benefits of a place.  

Sara Thabit Gonzalez web.jpg

Sara Thabit, Early-Stage Researcher, PhD Candidate 
#governance #partnerships #participation 


The term “smart city” should be understood as an aspiration, a collective journey where governments and societies use innovation and new technologies to respond to complex social, economic, and environmental challenges. In a global debate where the smart city concept is gaining unprecedented importance across policymakers, private companies, residents, and other sectors of society, we must recognize that smart city cannot rely on technological development itself, but on the role of technology to meet local needs and enhance citizen engagement and personal development.  


During the last decades, various examples of smart city initiatives were developed without a citizen-oriented approach, demonstrating how a smart city can also create negative effects - from the increase of social inequalities, to the misuse public money, or the lack of acceptance and integration by local communities. Moving away from a technology-focused approach, and adopting a citizen-centred vision to smart cities is fundamental to ensure a smart city is also a happy city. 


We could then say that a “happy smart city” is the one that integrates new innovative practices to improve environmental and human wellbeing, making itself more sustainable and inclusive. A happy smart city allows experimentation and co-creation, while respecting digital human rights and reducing the digital divide across citizens and communities. A happy smart city empowers its residents to engage in collective problem-solving, and leverages transparency and accountability of public institutions. In sum, a happy smart city is a human-centric city! 

In this short overview we can see that smart city concept can vary according to the person's view. All point of views are correct as seen from different angles. FinEst Centre for Smart cities team consists of research and expert from different areas what may or may not overlap in some ways but we all have a same goal – make cities happy. Smart city can be happy city, it just depends how you see it. 


What makes a city a happy city for you? Feel free to share your thoughts by contacting us or commenting our social media posts in Twitter/LinkedIn 


Chenic, A.Ș., Cretu, A.I., Burlacu, A., Moroianu, N., Vîrjan, D., Huru, D., Stanef-Puica, M.R. and V. Enachescu. 2022. “Logical Analysis on the Strategy for a Sustainable Transition of the World to Green Energy—2050. Smart Cities and Villages Coupled to Renewable Energy Sources with Low Carbon Footprint.” Sustainability 14, 1-30.  

Fuenfschilling, L., N. Frantzeskaki, and L. Coenen. 2019. “Urban Experimentation & Sustainability Transitions.” Journal European Planning Studies 27(2), 219–228. 

Geels, F.W. 2018. “Sustainability transitions.” Companion to Environmental Studies, 719–724(6). 

Loorbach, D., N. Frantzeskaki, and F. Avelino. 2017. “Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 42, 599–626. 

Markard, J., R. Raven, and B. Truffer. 2012. “Sustainability transitions: An emerging field of research and its prospects.” Research Policy 41(6), 955–967. 

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