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Lies, Damned Lies & Smart City Rankings

07 Jan 2020 1
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I am often asked which cities rank as the “smartest” – and I do my best to control my cynicism. Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to a world where Smart Cities transform the way we work, live and play, but I can’t understand why we get so caught up with Smart City rankings.

Well, that’s not totally true. Rankings generate headlines. Headlines lead to perception. And it’s better to be perceived as a “SMART” city than a “DUMB” city. But, I digress…

Smart City rankings are fun to read, but they are NOT an accurate reflection of how “smart” a city is.

Let me prove it to you…

The challenges with Smart City rankings

One concern I have with Smart City rankings is that they become a distraction for the people who are leading the Smart City programs. Rather than implementing strategies to deliver solutions that will transform their city, they can become obsessed with their city’s ranking.

But besides that, it’s really, really difficult to create a ranking that accurately reflects how smart a city is.

To illustrate, an average city will have 25 – 30 government agencies (e.g. transport, energy, emergency services, public housing). Each agency is a business in itself, so to rank a city you need to

  1. Evaluate each agency individually
  2. Compare it to similar agencies in other cities
  3. Complete this process across each of the 25 – 30 agencies
  4. Set a weighting for each agency based on its perceived importance level in relation to delivering a Smart City
  5. Create a score for that city
  6. Multiply that workload by the 100 or so cities you want to rank

It’s a logistical nightmare.

In addition, a Smart City means different things to different stakeholders – and each stakeholder has different success criteria for ranking a Smart City.

  1. Cities want to drive efficiency, sustainability and improved decision making,
  2. Businesses want a transparent, efficient and competitive environment to operate in, and
  3. Citizens was to improve inclusiveness, services and quality of life.

While there is quantitative, fact-based analysis involved in ranking cities, much of it is based on qualitative insights – and qualitative insights are subjective. Even if you create a ranking based solely on the analysis of quantitative data, the data you choose to include and the weightings you apply are subjective.

But, I’m a realist. I know we LOVE Smart City rankings – and since there is nothing I can do to change human nature – I decided to do the Smart Cities rankings research for you. Consider this my belated Christmas present.

Which Smart City is the “smartest”?

I started by reviewing one of the latest Smart City rankings, which was launched by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Switzerland’s IMD Business School in October 2019. This ranking evaluated 102 cities based on “how citizens perceive the scope and impact of efforts to make their cities smart, balancing economic and technological aspects with humane dimensions”.

The Top 10 cities in their ranking weren’t too shocking. I know many of these cities well and was not surprised to see Singapore, Zurich, Oslo, Copenhagen and Taipei included.

What did make me raise an eyebrow was the inclusion of Geneva.

I have not been to Geneva in years – nor have I had any briefings on their Smart City initiatives. For all I know, Geneva could be a worthy #4, but I decided to compare this ranking to its performance in other rankings, just to be sure. So, I reviewed three other Smart City rankings released during 2019 and it turns out that Geneva was ranked #32, #33 and #37 by:

  1. IESE Cities in Motion Index
  2. EasyPark Group’s Smart City Index
  3. A.T. Kearney’s Global Cities Index

Is there a method to the Smart City Ranking madness?

In short, no, there isn’t. While Singapore was ranked in the Top 10 in each of the rankings, the other city rankings were all over the place.

I could spend all day running through the anomalies I found, besides Geneva, but let’s start with these:

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  • Auckland – #6 in the IMD Index, but #58 in EasyPark’s Index
  • Bilbao – #9 in IMD, but #107 in IESE’s Index. I do feel some sympathy for the person who leads Bilbao’s Smart City program. I can imagine them walking into the Mayor’s office and saying, “We are ranked #9 in the world, I deserve a raise!” And the Mayor responds by saying, “No, we are ranked #107, you are fired!”
  • Dusseldorf – bounces from #10 in the IMD Index to #50 (IESE) and #64 (A.T. Kearney)
  • London – IESE ranks London as the world’s smartest city, A.T. Kearney ranks it #2, but EasyPark ranks it #50.
  • New York – A.T. Kearney ranks it #1, IESE #2, but only #38 by IMD.
  • Only four cities (Singapore, Oslo, Copenhagen, Helsinki) in IMD’s Top 10 also rank in the Top 10 of at least one of the other indices.

Digging deeper creates more questions, not answers…

…and that’s not a good thing. Powered by many double espressos, I decided to compare the rest of the cities from the IMD Index. Again, this raised more questions than time permits, but ask yourself this…

  1. Why are the Chinese cities ranked so far down the list? I’ve visited many of them and reviewed their Smart City initiatives – so I’m very surprised they fail to appear in the top rankings
  2. How can Dubai rank as low as #99 when ALL its government services (e.g. visa applications, bill payments, license renewals), which generate over 100 million documents annually, will all be transacted digitally on blockchain by the end of 2020?
  3. How can technologically-advanced cities like Seoul, Paris and Tokyo have such a wide range of rankings?
  4. Most importantly, does reviewing the rankings make it any easier to understand which is the “smartest” Smart City?

SCR4 ALL RANKINGS

The challenge is while the rankings look random, each is “technically” accurate based on their methodology applied. So until we agree a Smart City assessment methodology, these rankings will be more about marketing and driving “clicks” than an accurate ranking of world’s smartest cities.

So, a friend suggested I do my own Smart City ranking to prove the point…

Great idea! I’m proud to announce the Charles Reed Anderson Perfect Smart City Ranking, or the CRAP Smart City Ranking, for short.

Here’s my CRAP methodology:

I looked at the 44 cities ranked by all four smart Cities indices. I totalled their four rankings and divided by four. Simple – as I didn’t want to over-complicate my CRAP methodology.

While Singapore leads the way – by a long way, 9 of the Top 20 come from Europe, 8 from North America and only 3 from Asia Pacific.

On a side note, I advise you DO NOT use this Top 20 ranking – it’s based on a CRAP methodology after all.

Smart City rankings are fun to read – and can be a useful marketing tool if your city ranks high on the list – but they are NOT an accurate reflection of how smart your city is.

Let’s face it, anyone who has been to Seoul and Tokyo would think it’s insane to rank them the #72 and #62 “smartest” cities in the world.

Conclusion

For years, I’ve been playing the role of a technology industry pragmatist. My view is we get too caught up in the HYPE and forget to focus on delivering tangible VALUE.

Smart City rankings, like this article, should be taken with a pinch of salt. But, all is not lost.

If you are responsible for your city’s smart initiatives and need to show that your city is ranked as one of the smartest – just keep searching. There are many more Smart City rankings online – and your city is bound to rank near the top in one of them.