Beyond Tech-Driven Smart Cities

​​​​​​​May 8, 2018
by Eilif Trondsen
By Eilif Trondsen, PhD, Chair of Special Interest Group on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Learning
A few weeks back, I got an unusual request. A Norwegian friend, who brings groups of professionals to Silicon Valley, for “educational and inspirational tours” (or perhaps what some of us, who frequently get invitations to speak to such groups, refer to as “techno tourism”) asked me to speak on the topic of “smart cities and learning.”

Over the last half a dozen years or more, I have seen lots of articles on “smart cities” as growing number of technology providers—including Cisco, IBM, Oracle and many others—as well as big data, sensors and analytics providers, and, of course, anyone doing urban design and planning, are active players in the business of “smart cities.” And since no city wants to be a “dumb city”, growing number of cities around the world are now trying to figure out how to leverage emerging tech (especially AI, machine learning, the latest sensor tech, software analytics, etc) to make cities run more smoothly and become more livable and inviting for current and future residents.
But what intrigued me about my friend’s request was not the “smart city” part but the learning part, as the intersection of learning and tech is what I have spent many years exploring and trying to understand—and still trying to figure out! The combination of smart cities and learning, in particular, got me thinking and I took this as a challenge and therefore agreed to speak to the 25-strong group of visitors from Oslo.


Since virtually all cities want to be a smart city, and are working on some kind of smart city initiative—mostly focused on how to use the latest and coolest technologies around—the first question I asked myself when thinking about the visiting group from Oslo was: How can they differentiate themselves in this space, and how can they go beyond the tech focus, and instead focus on the PEOPLE elements of the smart city equation? And if they want to have a long-term, sustainable smart city project, doesn’t this require that the residents of the future smart city of Oslo become engaged in the project, and learn, i.e. become knowledgeable about what smart cities could bring in terms of new opportunities—and understand both benefits and costs of such a big initiative?
Based on this, I chose the following title for my presentation: Making Oslo the Learning Capital of the World: Next Generation Smart City. Since Silicon Valley is all about BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals)—which Wikipedia defines as “strategic business statement similar to a vision statement which is created to focus an organization on a single medium-long term organization-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible”—I thought this would provide the visitors with an appropriate visionary goal and longer term perspective on their initiative.


When most people hear the term “learning” they immediately think of “education” and often think back to being bored stiff during teachers’/professors’ lectures on things which they as students often see as having little relevance for what they want to do or are passionate about. I therefore spent the first part of my presentation trying to get the visitors out of the “old classroom learning mindset” and think about why learning—going far beyond just formal (“education”) type of learning to include all forms of informal learning—is so important, and indeed critical, for anyone in today’s VUCA world (a world increasingly characterized by high degree of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity).

My two slides listing competencies that will become increasingly important for future success, especially in the workplace of the future, but even for having a successful life in general, drew in part on wise words from my good friend Jay Cross—who was always very focused on informal learning. And I challenged the visitors to think of ways in which they could integrate a wide range of projects into their smart city initiative that would draw in young people, perhaps in collaboration with companies, who could then gain these types of competencies via project-based learning that would engage them much more than traditional lectures.

Projects could also challenge companies—and their employees—to explore the future of smart cities, and engage in dialog and discussion around future trends affecting smart city design and implementation. Such projects, and workshops, could become ways to involve Oslo residents in thinking about what the future of Oslo, as a smart city, could and should look like and how it could and should work.
Why couldn’t smart city initiatives include projects that would take students outside their classrooms and perhaps focus on designing BMX or skateboarding parks that many young people want but very often don’t find in urban environments? Why not challenge them to brainstorm and come up with ideas for such projects, how to design them, seek funding and assistance from local companies, and document their work using modern project management tools, etc? These are the kinds of projects I have seen in my neighborhood of Cupertino and San Jose, and if these are not the things young people in Oslo want, find out what they do want and how they can make them happen, as part of smart city design.


Just like smart cities will be enabled by and will incorporate a wide range of (emerging) technologies, the same is true for learning. Yes, tech is no “silver bullet” for learning, and I am a strong believer in “hybrid” or “blended” learning, where a variety of modalities, including conversation and dialog among people (mediated by technology or not), will need to play a part. But in the new world we now live in—and described very well by two friends, Jeff Saperstein and Hunter Hastings, in their forthcoming book The Interconnected Individual—technology will offer unprecedented opportunities to connect with others, regardless of distance, and increasingly at no cost, using increasingly sophisticated platforms that enable not just communication but also tools for collaboration. These “interconnected individuals” will also have unprecedented ways in which to learn, in formal and informal ways, including via massively open online courses (MOOCs) offered by world-class experts from top universities around the world, with great opportunities to connect and communicate (via chat boards, for instance) with others anywhere in the world.
New tools and platforms, including the use of Augmented and Virtual Reality technologies (more on this in future blog posts), will open up new opportunities for more engaging and interesting ways of learning than just reading books, like what many of us were limited to when we grew up. All of this will offer opportunities for augmented connections, regardless of distance, that will enable new entrepreneurial opportunities. And combining these new kinds of learning opportunities with smart city initiatives could stimulate young people to see themselves as integral parts of the design and implementation of smart city projects and thus help ensure long terms sustainable success.