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Smart City: the city of the future is getting smarter

Urban development in the 21st century has been the subject of international political debate ever since the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which came into being under the aegis of the United Nations and established UNEP, the ‘United Nations Environment Programme’, and continued with the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development, which led to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 at the ‘COP 3’ Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.

The birth of the smart cities phenomenon dates back, in fact, to the early 1990s and indicated the desire to implement a global urban development project with a focus on the quality of the natural environment, effectively usable mobility and the use of renewable energy sources.

The urban fabric of the cities of the future would therefore benefit from the development of technology in order to create new infrastructures for economic growth, diversification and competitiveness of the territory and its community.

Evolution of the smart city concept

The word smart city takes us back to a semantically complex and varied concept.

For some authors, the conceptualisation of smart cities is mainly based on ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), while for others, on the contrary, one must go beyond the concept of their mere use: however, all of them – economists, planners, engineers, sociologists, geographers and environmentalists – agree that ICT and sustainability are the two macro areas of strategic direction.

To understand how smart cities, in a situation where the economic and energy crisis, population growth in urban areas and an unacceptable increase in the consumption of natural resources, will be able to respond to the challenges of the future, we spoke with Raffaele Gareri, the co-author of the Rome Business School Report “Smart Cities and Air Quality. Italian urban centres between sustainable growth and good mobility practices‘ and he told us:

Over the past decades, the concept and meaning of the smart city has evolved and expanded. Today, the smart city sees its actors focused on creating and satisfying needs for sustainability of the territory, inclusion and a general improvement in the quality of life of the community.

Therefore, the term smart city today means a new way of working in an “ecosystem” because in order to achieve that specific macro objective of an area, it is not enough to use ICT but it is necessary to identify converging strategic plans in a vision of cooperative interaction between the main players. With this in mind, I believe it is also important for territories to strengthen so-called public/private partnerships where public investments support the development of companies’ business and at the same time companies’ business contributes to the objectives, for example of the 2030 agenda, of a territory. In addition, smart cities are those that also begin to infrastructure themselves in the collection and management of data, as a prerequisite for then being able to define future local services that must be realised not on intuitions, but on the concrete needs of citizens. From this perspective, the technological aspect becomes purely a facilitating tool for the new strategy of action. In the past, technology accounted for 80 per cent and the organisational aspect for 20 per cent. Today this percentage has been reversed and it is the management aspect that accounts for 80% because the strategic aspect is almost prevalent in the new smart city.”

Best practice in Italy

According to the recent ICity Rank 2021 compiled by FPA, the Italian PA Health Forum, the “smartest” Italian city in 2021 is Florence, which has overtaken Milan, which has held the top spot in the ranking for six editions.

The ICity Rank is an annual report on Italian smart cities in which the FPA identifies and analyses the different areas of urban life to draw up a ranking and establish which city is closest to citizens’ needs based on sector indicators.

Florence, Bologna and Milan are today among the most dynamic Italian cities because they have constantly invested over the years and are therefore able to realise innovative projects. The single project, if you like, is not significant in itself, in these cities you can see the effort to try not only to launch new ideas but also to try to network them together.

Undoubtedly this represents a multi-year process, which presupposes a cultural path involving precise organisational choices.  And this, in my opinion, is the most interesting aspect that we can identify as best practice: the transversal approach on elements of digital infrastructure and logic of cooperation with the territory, ranging from social services to tourism promotion, from security to sustainable mobility.

Then, as is often the case in our country, we experience patchy situations: statistically there is a greater propensity for this innovation in the Centre-North but there are also interesting cases in the South. I would therefore not make it a purely geographical issue, because the dynamics may have other interpretative matrices such as the farsightedness of local administrators and entrepreneurs who, starting from the needs of the community, build a virtuous path. Similarly, the greatest criticality is represented by the inability of some territories to build connecting tables between the main local stakeholders. Another aspect that should not be underestimated is the lack of skills: on the subject of inclusion and sustainability, one does not improvise.”

Best Practice in Europe

Cities are very complex environments, characterised by the mix of urban functions and the relationships between them, and are considered ideal places for innovation programmes. Given their different peculiarities, the objectives and strategies they put in place to pursue their development are very different and vary from country to country.

In Europe, there are many projects and funding provided by the European Union for the implementation of smart solutions in cities, which have become pioneers in combining management, structures, databases and ICT technologies adapted to the territory.  

“In my opinion, there are certainly 4 European examples of good practice for smart cities in relation to the different paradigms of collective action. Barcelona can be taken as an example on the issue of citizen involvement in so-called participatory processes. It was the local government itself that created a platform to facilitate communication and transparency in the allocation of economic resources. Amsterdam has enabled the inclusion of private companies in the innovative development of city services by encouraging public-private partnerships for the creation of cooperation tables between the administration and private companies. Dublin has been very adept at creating programmes to attract foreign investors as well, succeeding in finding additional resources and creating a virtuous circle of attracting human resources as well, especially young talent, for the development of new programmes. Stockholm was one of the first European cities to invest in the realisation of a publicly owned fibre optic network with management delegated to private companies, which historically have better managerial and management skills than public entities. Today, for example, Stockholm offers fibre to the home: this infrastructure is used not only for connectivity but also for the most innovative services for citizens.”


There are 3 Missions foreseen by the PNRR, the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, in which there are elements and objectives related to the Smart City theme: of the 9 billion euro earmarked for urban regeneration, about 2.5 billion are dedicated to Integrated Urban Plans, which envisage participatory urban planning projects, with the aim of transforming vulnerable territories into smart and sustainable cities.

“The substantial funds available to our country from the PNRR, the European Union’s largest investment, represent a valuable opportunity to create not only smart cities but smart lands, and to arrive, we hope in the near future, at the concept of a smart nation. The resources will also be an opportunity for us to attract further investment from international players and also facilitate the arrival of young talent. We hope to be attractive to foreign universities and young researchers, including Italian ones, who have the desire and energy to participate in innovative projects. This is an opportunity to create a modern dimension of our unique territories that combine the richness of history, landscape and cultural assets in a dimension of biodiversity that has no equal in the world. With this in mind, it is very important that the worlds of industrial investment and start-ups are not decoupled in order to create mutual support mechanisms. The synergy of these two entities will be the winning development key for our economy’.

The most in-demand profiles

I believe that the future will see a major transformation of the job profiles in demand. There will be an increasing need for so-called T-training, where the straight leg of the T represents the vertical skills and the horizontal part the so-called multidisciplinary relational skills that are transversal and that in the past were called soft skills.

I believe that for future profiles, it is necessary to find a combination of these two approaches, i.e. to possess specific financial and communication skills to dialogue with different subjects that will enable them to understand the dynamics of inhomogeneous groups.

Moreover, Data Scientists are increasingly sought after because they are transversal to various worlds: they are valuable resources in the transport sector, in the pharmaceutical sector, even in tourism promotion, because they are able to read data, interpret the phenomena that occur and consequently build services. In business organisations, the entrepreneurial spirit, pro-activeness and resourcefulness that allows one to broaden one’s mindset is also fundamental.”


Raffaele Gareri graduated in Electronic Engineering in Genoa and holds a Master’s degree in Local Authority Management from Bocconi University. He is the Director of Tiscali’s FutureCommunities programme, Co-Founder and first President of The Smart City Association Italy, a non-profit association for the promotion of urban innovation models and services. He worked for more than 25 years in PAL (Province of Brescia and Roma Capitale) in which he held various senior management positions. He coordinated various innovation projects, some of which were awarded by Ministries and authoritative private institutions. He served for over 2 years as President of Ento (European Network of Training Organisations), an association of the Council of Europe, and is co-author with Bas Boorsma of the book A Digital New Deal Edition 2020.