Tech, politics and civil society – who governs smart cities?

Eliska Drapalova and Kai Wegrich examine what drives smart city strategies.

“Smart cities” is a popular buzzword that signals there are ready-made technological solutions for a host of urban problems – ranging from housing, transportation, education and poverty to climate change. Techno-optimists suggest “smarter” cities will improve the capacity to address many of these wicked problems. But sceptics warn that “smart city” policies could lead to a political and economic dominance of big technology companies, giving them access to citizens’ data, and potentially eroding city governments’ control over decision-making. This radical division of opinions shows that social scientists are just beginning to understand the impact of technology on urban governance.  

In their new paper, “Who Governs 4.0? Varieties of smart cities,” Eliska Drapalova, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Gothenburg, and Kai Wegrich, Hertie School Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy, examine what drives whether a smart city policy can deliver for the common good. The paper, published in Public Management Review in February 2020, argues that a strong civil society and high levels of political attention are required.  In asking, “who gets what, when, and how”, the authors look at “how preferences of specific groups or actors are built into institutions”. 

They provide a conceptual map focusing on the political, social and economic drivers of the smart city agenda – among the first of its type – for studying various smart cities approaches. The authors develop an analytical framework to capture different varieties of smart city governance – one that is different to other approaches focusing on technological or human capital aspects. This governance approach examines how various stakeholders interact to form a different smart city model. 

Using this framework, they look at four cities, each representing a different type or model, of smart city: Barcelona, Prague, Berlin and Rio de Janeiro. Each recently applied a type of strategy that fits one of four models the researchers identified in their paper, or which has been identified in other recent research. 

“We selected Barcelona from 2015 for the citizen-centred model of the smart city and Prague until 2014 as an example of captured governance. Rio de Janeiro during the government of Paes fits neatly into the business–politics collaboration quadrant, and finally, Berlin is a fitting example of a disjointed model and lack of synergy between a dynamic civic sphere and a traditional administration leading the process of smart city implementation,” they say. 

The authors hope to catalyse a research agenda focussed on the “actual” governance of smart cities. “This framework provides a first point of entry to the study of the varying governance of smart cities,” they say. 

Read the full paper here.


More about Kai Wegrich

  • Kai Wegrich , Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy