How smart is a smart city if people are excluded? And how do you make smart cities more equal and inclusive? These questions are what Jan Fransen, theme leader within Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC), deals with daily. "My aim is to contribute to more inclusive cities and to seriously counterbalance the literature that claims that smart cities provide a solution for everything."
Smart solutions often lead to increasing inequality
A smart city is one in which information technology and the Internet are used to manage and govern the city. In a smart city so-called smart solutions are deployed, such as installing a trash can that informs the municipality when it is full or installing security cameras. Jan explains that the benefits of smart solutions are regularly unevenly distributed.
"Often, there is an economic driver behind the smart solutions in a smart city. That quickly results in increasing inequality. For example, it leads to unequal distribution of who manages data, who has access to data and who can use it for economic gain."
A different definition of smartness
With fellow researchers, Jan is studying how people in Nairobi can better cope with a shock like COVID-19. "Smartness also comes into play here. For example, we ask people what they think of interventions in the slums. For example, they think it's smart if you manage to find another job or keep your children in school. For them, it's more about adapting to local contexts than anything else. By collecting these perspectives, we can develop a different definition of smartness."
The resilience of small businesses in relation to smart cities
Jan teaches an international course to urban leaders worldwide who are responsible for small business development. Think, for example, of informal businesses in slums, textile companies in Bangladesh, but also Blue City in Rotterdam, where circular small businesses have established themselves. "We discuss questions such as: How can you best help them and make them resilient? And to what extent does the idea of smart cities help with that? Or does it actually lead to the wrong economic developments?"
Countering the current image of the smart city
The literature claims that smart cities provide solutions for everything. Technical solutions are presented as if they are beatific. But they are not. "To offer a solution to the complex social and economic issues of our time, you have to dig deeper. A smart city makes innovative use of knowledge and, if necessary, technology to tackle complex problems within the local context. It is my goal to counterbalance the current literature on the smart city and thus contribute to more inclusiveness."
Biography Jan Fransen
Jan Fransen (PhD and MA in development studies) is Assistant Professor in Urban Economic Development and Resilience at IHS. He coordinates research on smart and resilient cities at Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens.
Jan has over 25 years of experience in the field of local economic development and resilience, with a particular interest in smart cities, urban resilience, community-based organisations, small firm development, informality, clustering, innovation systems, global value chains and institutional economics. He presently works on various studies on urban resilience in Rotterdam, The Hague, Nairobi and internationally.