Is Your City a Snappy Dresser?

I went to a conference in Derby last week. It was a hassle to get there from where I live in Berkshire. Which just goes to show that being a transport planner rarely gives you any advantage in your personal travel. I still had to endure 3.5 hours on the hot, stuffy, crowded train and I had no influence to add another carriage or make sure it ran on time.

The conference was entitled: The Route to Smarter Cities. It was supposed to be about how transport can help cities operate more efficiently and effectively for the benefit of their citizens and the local economy and the environment too. Not that you’d necessarily know that from the title. It was attended by some transport planning professionals, but also plenty of suppliers of IT, computing and other hi-tech systems that are, or could be, applied to transport networks. There were people who develop apps for mobile phones and people who control traffic signals. Not that you’d guess that from the title either.

Apparently, using ‘smart’ as an adjective for a city is a current buzzword among certain professionals. I’m not sure I’m one of them, as I only heard it for the first time fairly recently and wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. In my professional circle, people are still using that older buzzword: ‘sustainable’. Does that mean the same thing as ‘smart’? I gave a presentation at the conference and described hi-tech and low-tech transport solutions that I felt improved the efficiency of transport networks and services. I wasn’t completely sure if I was staying on topic, though the presentation seemed to be well-received.

Most disciplines and professions have their own jargon, especially social sciences and technical fields. But if not everyone in the same discipline in the same country is using the same jargon with the same defined meanings, what chance do other people, including the customers of many of us in applied social science professions, have of understanding?

Interestingly enough, one of the conference presentations included the results of a study where 1500 people had been asked what they thought might be meant by a ‘smart city’. Unexpectedly, the top answer was ‘clean’! Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising, however, as a common understanding of the word ‘smart’ is tidy and well-presented. And yet, one of the other top answers was a ‘pleasant’ place to live and work. What does ‘nice’ have to do with ‘smart’?

It reminded me of one of my daughter’s favourite books: The Smartest Giant in Town (Julia Donaldson). It’s all about a giant who wears old, scruffy clothes until he buys ‘smart’, new clothes. But then he gradually gives these clothes away to help animals in distress. As a result, the animals crown him the ‘kindest giant in town.’ Yet, back in his old clothes, he is no longer the smartest. Or is he?

I came away from the conference thinking that there were numerous insights into actions that could be taken to improve how transport operates. But the insight that stuck with me most is how carefully I should consider the language I use when describing the value of projects. Perhaps the next time I need to approach a hi-tech company to convince them of the importance of a transport project or even get them involved directly, I will use some of this ‘smart’ vocabulary. On the other hand, the language of sustainability might still be the one best appreciated by government employees. And if I’m speaking to a wider audience? Well, then it’s probably best to remind them that I too am just another member of the travelling public, as inconvenienced by a delayed train or a lack of clean, working toilets whilst travelling as anyone else.

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