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There still isn’t a common language or science of cities for the 21st century, but that could change.

BARCELONA – City Councilor Manel Sanroma likes to take visitors to the oldest part of this Mediterranean port city for a local tradition called the human tower, or castell, where white-shirted Catalans with red waistbands climb atop each other up to 50 feet high. A leader with a clipboard choreographs the participants according to size and weight and optimal supporting position. Music builds to a crescendo to let those at the bottom know the tower has been completed, as a young child stands at the pinnacle with triumphant outstretched arms.

Photo by Albert Gea/Reuters

Earnest, passionate, and friendly, a kind of Spanish version of Michael Caine, Sanroma likens the intricate exercise to cities finding their way in the 21st century: knowing what works, having a plan, but making last-minute adjustments as necessary. He and some 200 others from academia, nonprofits, cities, and industry gathered in Barcelona last week for an intensive four-day workshop to establish the City Protocol, a framework of principles, guidelines and best practices in the burgeoning smart cities movement.

Recognizing the rapid pace of change and the powerful ways that new technology can transform the management of cities, organizers want to duplicate the Internet Protocol, the grassroots common language and standards for computer systems on the internet. Pioneering computer scientist Vinton Cerf addressed the group by video on the process of working groups contributing suggestions about problem solving, documented by the Internet Protocol Society. The management of cities using technology is much broader, Sanroma says, but it’s similar. “We want to copy what has worked for the Internet for the past 40 years.”

The idea of a common framework sprouted in part from frustration. There has been plenty of hype about smart cities, and providers of original equipment manufacturers such as Cisco, GE, IBM, Siemens and many others, have all been trying to sell products and systems. But there was no clear game plan, for either the vendors or procurers. Many city leaders felt overwhelmed or had the sense of reinventing the wheel, gamely copying other cities’ pilot projects in transportation or energy or water management.

Barcelona took the lead on the idea of a basic, common blueprint for using technology for efficiency and sustainability – easily tailored for individual cities around the world – after launching a number of smart-city initiatives, involving changing bus routes for maximum efficiency, overhauling the procurement and operation of streetlights, establishing district or distributed energy systems by block, and streamlining garbage pickup using sensors.

Barcelona's bike share (left); Barcoded street lights (right), by Anthony Flint

Being a smart city is not only for the developed world’s cities, to make it easier to find a place to park, however. Anil Menon, the Bangalore-based president of globalization and "smart and connected communities" for Cisco, says smart cities are really about averting catastrophe. The world’s urban population is expected to increase from 3.5 billion in 2010 to 6.2 billion in 2050, and almost all of this growth is expected to take place in less-developed countries. Technology helps those cities manage those huge increases in population, Menon says, with more efficient and less expensive provision of basic services such as water and sanitation.

Barcelona chief architect Vicente Guallert Furio thinks all cities are at a turning point right now, similar to when they planned for expansion beyond medieval walled settlements in the 19th century. (The skyscraper where the workshop was held, for example, was on former agricultural land). Just as choreographers of public works at that time seized on cutting-edge advances in transportation (the streetcar, the subway) city leaders must plan for infrastructure and have a clear understanding of 21st century best practices and changing technology.

A big moment like that would seemingly require an informed common framework. Yet there are dozens of networks and standards and guidelines and ratings systems in urban planning today, from the Sustainable Cities Index to the Green Cities Index to LEED-ND. There are nonprofits and professional associations and matchmaker problem-solving groups like Living Labs. This frontier tends to be fractured and territorial, with politicians convinced that their own city is unique.

But despite all the activity, there still isn’t a common language or science of cities for the 21st century, says Furio, the Barcelona city architect.

Before dispersing, the group signed a charter of sorts, pledging to take specific next steps and not let this be one of those gatherings with a lot of talk but no follow-up. "Maybe the most important thing," says Juan Blanco, also from Cisco, "was that everyone recognized the need to do something."

A presentation on these shores about the City Protocol will be made at the Meeting of the Minds in San Francisco in October.

Photo credit: Ekaterina Pokrovsky /Shutterstock

About the Author

Anthony Flint

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow and Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

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